What Would a Stoic Do? The problem with infidelity

CheatingA major point of practical philosophy — indeed, the whole point of it, really — is to provide us with tools and guidance to navigate everyday life. This is probably why my recently started “Stoic Advice” column has quickly become so popular. But from time to time I pick my own conundrum and present it to the Stoic community for further thought and discussion, hence this series, What Would a Stoic Do (under these circumstances)? Today we talk about infidelity.

The occasion is provided by an article in 1843 magazine (part of The Economist), entitled “What’s wrong with infidelity?” and written by Emily Bobrow. Her conclusion, based on her interview with psychotherapist Esther Perel, is: not much. My counter-response will be: plenty.

The article begins with the story of Seth (likely not his real name, of course) and his unnamed girlfriend, who each cheated on each other and had been stung by the other’s betrayal. They went to Perel to seek counsel. As the article puts it:

“‘Esther helped us understand that perfection is not possible in relationships,’ [Seth] explains to me. With Perel’s help, Seth and his fiancée have come to embrace a relationship they are calling ‘monogamish’ — that is, they will aspire to be faithful to each other, but also tolerate the occasional fling.”

Well, that sounds reasonable, except that once both partners agree that it is okay to have occasional flings we do not have monogamy anymore, we have a partially open relationship. There is, as far as I can see, nothing particularly wrong with it, so long as there is no betrayal of trust — which is the thing that brought Seth to psychotherapy to begin with.

[In the following I will draw on general Stoic principles as I think they apply to modern life, not directly on what the ancient sources say on the topic of sex, since they vary from “completely promiscuous, do it in the streets” to “only within marriage, only for procreation.” Which to me indicates one area where Stoic thinking needs to be updated for modern times.]

The 1843 article continues: “studies show that even as we have become more permissive about most things involving either sex or marriage — ever ready to accept couples who marry late, divorce early, forgo children or choose not to marry at all — we have grown only more censorious of philanderers. In a survey of public attitudes in 40 countries from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, infidelity was the issue that earned the most opprobrium around the world.”

However, the numbers tell a different story: “Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women.” And Perel’s comment is: “People in the States are massively hypocritical, they don’t cheat any less than the French. They just feel more guilty about it.”

Now, when one is hypocritical about something, there are two ways out of the hypocrisy: one, shall we call it the French way?, is just to own up to the misbehavior and even be proud of it. The other, I’m going to call it the Stoic way, is to stop misbehaving, or at the least to do as much as possible to stop. Clearly, Perel and I disagree on which way is best.

She justifies her take in this way: “[Perel] wants us to understand that extramarital yearnings are all too natural, and that affairs are terribly, perhaps even inevitably, human.”

Right, and didn’t the Stoics say that we should live “according to nature”? So, what’s the problem? But of course what the Stoics meant by that phrase was not an appeal to nature — which is a logical fallacy of which Perel doesn’t seem to be aware, or care for — but rather that we should live by taking human nature seriously. And human nature is to be a social animal capable of reason. From this perspective, if Seth and his girlfriend recognize that they each have an urge for occasional flings, but that they’d rather stay in the relationship because they love each other, then the reasonable thing to do is to shift to the model of an open relationship, setting boundaries on how frequent and of what importance the allowed flings may be (for instance, there is a difference between an open relationship and a polyamorous one).

But to argue, as Perel does, that something that comes natural to us — like yearning for sex with multiple partners — is therefore also acceptable is bizarre. We also have natural impulses toward violence and xenophobia, toward systematically lying to cover up our misdeeds, becoming angry at others and even at natural events, and so forth. By Perel’s logic there would, therefore, be nothing wrong in also indulging in violence, xenophobic behavior, widespread lying, and unrepressed anger.

Here is what Epictetus has to say about that general point:

“Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.” (Enchiridion 10)

Back to Bobrow’s article: “Americans have a uniquely narrow-minded take on infidelity, says Perel. ‘Most Europeans see it as an imperfection, and not something worth destroying your marriage over.'”

Well, I’d like to see data about that. I’m European, and I know personally plenty of people who wrecked their marriages or relationships over infidelity. Be that as it may, I don’t think the Stoic counsel would be to quit your partner as soon as s/he does something wrong, including betraying your trust in sexual matters. After all, it was Marcus who said:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

I understand, of course, that Perel is a psychotherapist, not a philosopher. She is concerned with helping her patients dealing with, and possibly overcoming, problems. But the thing about Stoic philosophy is that it is both philosophy and therapy for the sane, so to speak, meaning that it doesn’t substitute for medical intervention, but does help people to think broadly about what they do and why.

In the specific case of cheating, the crucial virtues that come into play are those of temperance and justice, the latter in the specific sense of fairness to others, including, and perhaps beginning with, your partner. The discipline associated with justice is that of action, which teaches us how to behave in the world, considering first and foremost the fact that we are social beings, and that our actions affect others. A Stoic does not cheat, as that is clearly unvirtuous behavior. But there is nothing unvirtuous in seeking the “preferred indifferent” of multiple sexual partners, especially if it isn’t just to gratify oneself (that would be a bit too Cyrenaic, perhaps?), but — as in the case of Seth and his girlfriend — to actually make a loving relationship work better.


32 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? The problem with infidelity

  1. jmyers8888

    One problem with having sex with someone while in a committed relationship with someone else is that not all (most?) people can keep the sexual part of a relationship separate from the emotional, social, etc. parts of a relationship initiated by sex. Feelings of emotional attachment, social enjoyment, etc. are what make sexual attraction turn into a long-term relationship, and such feelings are difficult to control. And once they occur outside of a committed relationship, what’s to be done about the original relationship, which can often include other responsibilities like children?

    I know someone who believes in open relationships and who finds it ironic that each of the two women with whom he was seriously involved (not at the same time) during his life found men with whom they decided to have a monogamous, lifelong relationship. To me, that result seems not ironic, but likely. Now, he is 70 and sad about the relationships that didn’t last.

    Of course, there are many people (mostly men, in my limited experience) who cannot commit to another person beyond the relatively short-term sexual relationship, many times even when they think they are in love. But that’s another topic. Or is it?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Bruno

    I find that efforts such as Esther Perel’s steer very close to rationalization and justification of destructive behaviors. There is nothing good that can possibly come from infidelity… it’s a breach of Courage (just terminate your current relationship), Wisdom (don’t need to explain), Justice (to the affected parties) and Temperance (control your impulses, you’re not — just — an animal).

    Liked by 4 people

  3. E. O. Scott

    Brilliantly done, Massimo. You took her call for the “tolerance of human frailty” seriously, but injected the sense of moral discipline that Perel seems to have omitted.

    As far as I can see, you haven’t so much contradicted Perel’s message as you’ve added a little Stoicism, shaved off a little naturalistic fallacy, and said “there, I fixed it for you!”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ronald Salmond

    Professor Pigliucci thank you for this informative article.

    Professor I tried to live my life since age 15 according to the cardinal Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. I tried to teach my children those virtues.

    I am a retired physician and 100% disabled U.S Army veteran.

    During the 12th year of my marriage I cheated on my wife. Professor I ended the affair but I was racked by guilt because I had been a hypocrite and had acted without virtue. I undermined the morals and ethics that had guided my life.

    I told wife my of my infidelity. I lost her love and trust. I ultimately lost her, my children and all of my material possessions. I lapsed into severe depression, became suicidal, and started smoking crack cocaine. I actually fell so low that I was homeless for nearly a year.

    Various individuals, including psychiatrists and marital counselors that I saw over they years all said that since I had terminated the affair and that my wife was unaware of it, that I should have never told my wife.

    Professor I felt that my decision to be truthful to my wife, even knowing the pain and suffering that it would cause her and my children, was how a virtue ethicist should have acted.

    Professor I wrestled with the question of did I do the right thing for years. At times I felt that I should have used a utilitarian calculus and not told my wife because my telling her resulted in greater pain and suffering for she and my children than it relieved my suffering as a result of my guilt and hypocrisy.

    Despite my losses, looking through the ‘retrospectoscope’ I believe that I did the right thing in telling my wife of my fidelity.

    The consequences of my telling her were something which was beyond my locus of control.

    I have never felt that the suffering that I experienced was disproportionate to my offense. The lesson that I learned is that when you commit to marriage and a monogamous relationship you have to honor your marital vows.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Massimo Post author


    I’m truly sorry for the pain you went through. Knowing only what you wrote here, of course, I have to concur: you did the right, Stoic, thing in telling you wife. Acting on your desire to betray her trust was within your control, and so it was to decide to own up to your wife and tell her about it. As you say, her reaction was not under your control and you paid the consequences. From your description it actually sounds to me like you suffered too much in proportion to your deed, but of course Fortuna dishes out things the way she wishes, not according to any rhyme or reason. I can only hope that Stoicism helped a bit during the hard time, and that knowledge that you did do the right thing in talking to your wife is of some comfort. I just don’t understand why people are okay living an entire life lying to their partners, supposedly their closest friend. Many couples overcome these issues and become even stronger. Obviously that wasn’t your case, but that outcome doesn’t change the virtuous decision of coming out and telling the truth. All the best to you.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. dawso007

    The psychotherapy of depression arising from the adverse circumstances secondary to an extramarital affair affair is difficult because it involves a focus on realistic guilt and shame. In other words guilt that arises from a breach of an explicit moral code or an implicit one within the relationship. Of course for married couples it is explicitly stated in the marital vows. The mental landscape involves a path to self forgiveness and a plan for avoiding guilt and shame in the future. I agree that not feeling guilty about these situations is a rationalization. There are plenty of people burdened by inappropriate guilt and shame – based on nothing they have done and an artifact of depression or personality structure.

    General advice on how to live a life without guilt or shame – you have to do the right thing. There seems to be plenty of Stoic advice on how to determine what the “right thing” is.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. jbonnicerenoreg

    To me the betrayal of trust or lack of trust is a situation unique to the marital relationship. After all this is the person I would give my life for and trust my life to. My balls are literally and figuratively in her hands!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ronald Salmond

    Professor Pigliucci thank you for your kind words. Professor I believe that Stoicism along with psychotherapy and drug therapy for severe depression saved my life.

    As a U.S. Army veteran, who served two combat tours, I put into practice Marcus Aurelius’ wise counsel in Meditations 6.48 where he wrote:

    “Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another, and some other quality in someone else. There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand.”

    Professor I looked to James Bond Stockdale and Boethius as exemplars of how to demonstrate resilience and courage during trying times.

    I re-read Stockdale’s ‘Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior’.

    I re-read Boethius’s ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.

    I came to a recognition that none of the hardship and misfortune that I experienced was comparable to the pain and suffering that Stockdale and Boethius experienced.

    Thank you again Professor for this forum.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. dsferrara

    I think you did the right thing, Ronald. The outcome is none of our business.

    I hope your children attain the maturity to understand you acted like a true man, regardless of everything.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Andrew Duff McDuffee

    Yes, thank you. Advocates for polyamory almost universally commit the naturalistic fallacy when they conclude that monogamy is fundamentally broken. There is nothing inherently morally wrong with open relationships or polyamory, but neither is there anything inherently more virtuous. Virtue in this case comes from honesty and integrity, fulfilling your commitments, regardless of what those might be in your specific case.

    Liked by 6 people

  11. Ronald Salmond

    dsferrara thank you for your kind words. After 11 years of what I can only describe as exile, my oldest son, who is 33 reached out to me last year. He has forgiven me and we are rebuilding our relationship.

    Unfortunately, I remain estranged from my ex-wife and 27 year old twin sons. I love them unconditionally.

    I continue to hold out hope that my ex-wife and twin sons will reconcile with me and allow me to be a part of their lives. But I know that whether they will ever love or care about me is something that is not within my locus of control. My love for them is not conditioned upon them reciprocating.

    Stoicism helped me cope with the loss of my family. It also allowed me to forgive myself and love myself again.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. alQpr

    I think there may be some confusion here between the words “infidelity” and “adultery”. The latter, which may have been what was really meant by Ms Bobrow, just refers to sex involving a partner who is legally married to someone else; and if that is done with full understanding and unforced agreement by all participants and their partners then I see nothing inherently wrong with it. That is not to say that it may not be difficult to truly avoid any kind of pressure or compulsion towards agreement, or that there is not a serious risk of unexpected jealousy after the fact. But I didn’t think that a Stoic would reject something just because it is difficult, so I was pleased to see you eventually describe non-monogamy as a possible “preferred indifferent” for some people.

    The moral culpability of “infidelity” or “cheating” is quite clear of course if it is interpreted as adultery in the context of a promise or commitment to avoid it. Ms Bobrow does not properly make this distinction and her claim that Americans feel unduly guilty is false if the guilt is about having failed to keep faith with a promise. But she is right that one way to avoid such guilt is not to make the promise in the first place and to enter the relationship with an understanding that there will probably be some hanky-panky on the side. Part of what I would expect from a “true Stoic” is a serious effort to understand one’s own weaknesses, and so I would hold making the promise of strict monogamy (without having previously tested and confirmed one’s capacity to resist temptation) almost as culpable as breaking it.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Massimo Post author


    Thanks for the analysis. I disagree with your conclusion though. It may or may not be wiser not to make the promise of fidelity, but if one doesn’t make it then one has to be upfront with his partner about it. Such an agreement would then make the side sexual relationships not a case of indifelity. I still think it is a good thing to promise commitment to one’s partner, though. It is just a question of being careful as to what, exactly, one is promising. In this sense, using vows (even for partnerships, not just marriages) is a good idea, because the resulting promises are spelled out clearly, they are not implied. Implied promises likely set up different expectations from the two parties, potentially leading to problems later.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Ronald Salmond

    Professor Pigliucci I concur with your claims: “I still think it is a good thing to promise commitment to one’s partner, though. It is just a question of being careful as to what, exactly, one is promising. In this sense, using vows (even for partnerships, not just marriages) is a good idea, because the resulting promises are spelled out clearly, they are not implied. Implied promises likely set up different expectations from the two parties, potentially leading to problems later.”

    Professor I believe that the obligation to honor a marital vow in which it is explicit to both parties that the marriage will entail monogamy is consistent with Virtue Ethics and Kantian ethics.

    Violating a marital vow in which there is a clear understanding by both parties of the marriage that the sexual relationship between the parties will be monogamous is in my view morally impermissible.

    I have no problem with open marriages or polyamory but they have to be based upon the mutual consent of the parties involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. E. O. Scott


    “using vows (even for partnerships, not just marriages) is a good idea, because the resulting promises are spelled out clearly”

    I took my vows a step further: I explicitly promised to never raise my voice to her in anger.

    I’m doing good so far, but we’re only five months in. I’ll have to keep on my Stoic toes if I’m going to keep this promise for life! My parents think I’m a hopeless idealist ;).

    Liked by 2 people

  16. alQpr

    Thanks for the reply Massimo, but I’m not sure there is any disagreement there – unless you think that ” it is a good thing to promise commitment” without having given serious consideration to what that means. Your recommendation of explicit vows suggests that that is not the case, but I don’t think they solve the problem – unless the vowers truly believe (with good reason) that they are capable of maintaining them.

    Many of the vows taken in this world are taken by people who wilfully and inexcusably exaggerate their capacity to maintain them. And the fact that they are often deluding themselves along with others is no excuse for this.

    There is a simple solution though. The vow should just be to try to the best of one’s ability to achieve the goal rather than an absolute promise that it will be achieved. And the question of whether or not to provide unsolicited reports of failure should also be addressed. Many people may accept and forgive occasional lapses from a partner and prefer not to have their noses rubbed in it. Brutal “honesty” in such cases may itself be a violation of the commitment to respect and protect the feelings of a partner. As Facebook so helpfully reminds us: “It’s Complicated”.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. jljones26

    This is a difficult subject as I have tread these treacherous waters and nearly drowned due to my ego, lust and stupidity. Gentlemen (why are there not more women on this site?), sometimes we are only as faithful as our options. I say this with sadness, not bravado. Know thyself, right? Well I know that I am deeply flawed.

    I do not come to you with answers, only questions, and I have many many questions. But I would ask you to not tell us what you will or won’t do at 30 or 40, but report back when you’re 70 or 80 with what you did or didn’t do.

    As for those of us who have failed in this arena, I do think stoicism helps, though I’m only a novice here and I’m generally wrong about most things.

    What stings for those of us who have failed is just that, failure. We’ve failed the ones we love. And maybe we’re not used to a lot of failure. There’s so much more to cover here…

    But don’t beat yourselves up too much about it. You’re human. Isnt that part of what was written at Delphi? Know yourself; know that you are human…. You guys are smarter than I am, help me out here. We make mistakes. But there’s something about infidelity that lingers. You cannot escape it.

    As I said, I only have questions. Which is why I’m here. Stoicism is a practice, can we ever reach mastery? I don’t believe I can, though I’m trying to prove myself wrong.

    I do appreciate all of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Massimo Post author


    Thanks for your comment. To begin with, we actually have a number of women commenters, and I presume therefore of readers.

    I understand you when you say that we are only as faithful as our options (or lack thereof). The modern philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a classic paper entitled “Moral Luck,” in which he warns against being too complacent about our moral rectitude, arguing that often we are just lucky not to be tested.

    That said, I think that’s a bit of a bleak view of things. We clearly are capable of resisting temptations, and we often do so. And Stoic training is meant to help us getting better at it.

    As for the Oracle at Delphi, “know thyself” isn’t supposed to be used as an excuse for indulging in one’s weaknesses, but rather as a reminder that to overcome our weaknesses we need to be clear eyed about our own desires and priorities.

    If by reaching mastery you mean becoming like a Sage, the perfect Stoic, that’s probably not humanly possible, or if it is, it’s very rare. But role models and ideals serve to inspire us, so we are doing okay if today we are better than yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Ronald Salmond

    jljones26 thank you for sharing. You could have not stated more concisely and eloquently the emotions that I felt when I cheated on my wife during the 12th year of my marriage.

    As you wrote:

    “What stings for those of us who have failed is just that, failure. We’ve failed the ones we love. And maybe we’re not used to a lot of failure.”

    jljones26 for me it was not that I was not used to failure that stung me. What stung me was my hypocrisy and cowardice in not adhering to the cardinal Stoic virtues of Justice, Temperance, Wisdom , and Courage that I had tried to live by since age 15.

    At age 15 I dropped out of high school and was preparing to leave my hometown, Springfield, Massachusetts, to enter the Job Corps at Camp Gary Job Corps Center in San Marcos, Texas My
    neighborhood, Mr. Stein, gave me my first copy of Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’.

    Mr. Stein loved me. Mr. Stein was a survivor of the Holocaust. He survived internment at Auschwitz, and Treblinka. He saw the good in me and knew that I did not have proper parental guidance.

    Mr. Stein felt that ‘Meditations’ could give me guidance and help strengthen my resolve to handle adversities that I was likely to face leaving home at such a tender age.

    Mr. Stein was correct. The ‘Meditations’ gave me the guidance that I needed. I was able to serve my country honorably in the United States Army-two combat tours. I subsequently went to college and medical school. I specialized in Internal Medicine with sub-specialization in Nephrology (Kidney Diseases) and Transplant Medicine (I managed patients who required kidney transplants, liver transplants and combined kidney-pancreas transplants.

    At the time when I should have exercised the ‘dichotomy of control’, wisdom, and temperance in 1994, I gave into lust. I had an extra-marital affair. I undermined the morals and values that had guided my life since I was 15 years old.

    I hated myself because I was a coward and a hypocrite. I cannot find the words to express to you the pain and suffering that my infidelity inflicted upon my ex-wife and three sons.

    I lost my wife, three sons and all the material possessions that I had.

    I hated myself and tried to commit suicide on three occasions for hurting my family as I die.

    If you have ever seen Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece “Unforgiven”, I was like the main character portrayed by Clint Eastwood, William Munny. I was a man who was unforgiven.

    Like the late Paul Newman’s character Francis Galvin in the masterpiece film “The Verdict” I hated myself and searched for something, that one thing, that might allow me to feel that I had done penance for hurting my ex-wife and children and that I could feel forgiven and love myself again.

    jljones26 I never found that one act that would give me absolution and allow me to forgive myself and love myself again.

    What allowed me to forgive myself was Stoicism. I came to a recognition that as Heraclitus is reported to have said:

    “You cannot walk through the same river twice because the flow of water is ever rushing upon you.”

    I came to a recognition that I could not relive the past or change the past.

    I accepted responsibility for my infidelity and the consequences of my infidelity. I expressed my contrition as best I could to my ex-wife and children and asked for their forgiveness. The greatest difficulty was forgiving myself.

    My oldest son reconciled with me but I remain estranged from my ex-wife and my 27 year old twin sons.

    jljones26 you asked the question: “Stoicism is a practice, can we ever reach mastery?”

    jljones26, none of us are perfect. What the Stoics point out is that although we are not perfect, in principle we all are correctable. We all are in a state of becoming.

    Epictetus says:

    “Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show me-I desire, by the gods to see a real Stoic. You cannot find one? Then show me someone who is becoming like this, who has displayed at least a tendency to be Stoic.” – Epictetus, Discourses II.19.24-25

    I am 60 years old. I have been studying Stoicism since age 15. With 45 years of study I still consider myself to be a novice Stoic.

    I wish you the best jljones26.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. William Calhoun

    First of all, this whole question is kind of loaded: to use the term “infidelity” is to present a situation which is assumed to be wrong and dishonest.

    What is it that makes the “good life” ? I think a Stoic would present two main elements:

    1) to follow “nature” i.e. reality) which is based on my experience and what I can learn of the experience of others. This also means to be honest. If I lie, if I am deceptive, I’m not following reality, I’m living according to some fantasy. I cannot live according to reality if I lie to myself, or others, about what my experience of reality is.

    2) to be rational.

    In this case the first question is: “What is my situation?”. What relationship am I in and what have we promised one another ? What am I feeling and experiencing vis a vis my partner and the other person ? Is there room in this relationship for another ?

    Please notice: THIS relationship. Not a theoretical relationship, not my son’s, not my cousins, not one I’ve read about in the papers, but one based on my knowledge of myself and my partner’s knowledge of hirself.

    Who am I and who is my partner and what are the limits we have set ? As a Stoic, I will be honest with my partner in what I want. Is a promise made once binding forever ? Remember, this is a question for both partners to address. To assume that a relationship is automatically monogamous and eternal is to base it on a past time and a different reality. Is a female partner doomed if a relationship ends ? That was very much the reality long ago, but not now. Is the danger of pregnancy the same as it was long ago ? No. Do we live in a world in which women are property and infidelity is seen as theft of same ? Hope not.

    Ideally, if both partners are trying to be Stoics, they addressed many of these issues at the beginning of their relationship. The days of being able to assume a marriage had certain terms and worked a certain way are long over. Someone who doesn’t recognize this is ignoring reality and not following nature. Like every other part of hir life, the Stoic must examine with open eyes and a clear mind what s/he is getting into and on what terms.

    To declare sexual contact outside some committed relationship always wrong is to ignore the reality that each relationship is different and must be addressed and treated as unique.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author


    I think the term infidelity is exactly correct, not loaded. Infidelity is, by definition, a situation where someone has sexual intercourse outside of one’s relationship without the consent of his partner.

    I agree with you that lying is not a Stoic principle, and Larry Becker does interpret “living according to nature” as “taking facts seriously.” But facts need to be filtered through our value judgments, as Epictetus tells us. So it is a fact that human nature includes a tendency for filandering, but the virtuous person does not have to act on that tendency, no more that he has to yield to violence or anger, also “facts” about human nature.

    I certainly did not assume either that relationships must be monogamous, nor that they last forever (well, until one of the partners dies). I simply assumed that a Stoic wouldn’t want to lie in order to give in to pleasure.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Ronald Salmond

    Professor Pigliucci I know that this is a Stoic forum but on the topic of infidelity I believe that in the normative ethics of Virtue Ethics and the normative ethics of deontological ethics that it is morally impermissible to commit infidelity which you have defined as “a situation where someone has sexual intercourse outside of ones relationship without the consent of his partner.”

    Professor I am making the assumption that both parties have an explicit understanding that their sexual relationship is to be monogamous. This would apply to a relationship between parties that are married and to the relationship between parties that are not married.

    I believe that a virtue ethicist would not commit infidelity.

    I believe that someone who subscribed to Immanuel Kant’s normative theory of ethics would also not commit infidelity.

    First, I believe that it would be a violation of Kant’s formulation of the Categorical Imperative that is formally called the “Formula of Universal Law’ which says:

    “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law of nature.”

    In other words, we should only act on any principle that everyone else could act on as well.

    I do not believe that infidelity is an act that we could universalize. If everyone cheated on their partner when there was an explicit understanding that the sexual relationship was to be monogamous, people would no longer agree to having monogamous sexual relationships. This would result in a contradiction where you could never cheat on someone because they would never agree to have a monogamous relationship with you in the first place.

    Second, I also believe that infidelity is a violation of Kant’s formulation of the Categorical Imperative that is referred to as the ‘Formula of Humanity which says:

    “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as and end, never merely as a means. ”

    Professor I believe that infidelity robs the person who has committed the act and the aggrieved party of their dignity. As Socrates is reported to have said: : “Harm, harms the doer.” I know that my marital infidelity definitely harmed me. My self hatred for my indiscretion almost cost me my life.

    Third, I believe that the formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative that is referred to as the “Formula of the Kingdom of Ends”. is also violated by the act of infidelity.

    This formula says:

    “Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends.”

    This formulation ask us to every time that you act on a principle, act as if you are legislating that principle for everyone in society, but not just any society, a kingdom of ends. Such a society if it existed, would be a kingdom in which all the citizens respected the goals of all their other fellow citizens.

    In my opinion Professor, infidelity undermines the Formula of the Kingdoms of Ends.

    Professor Pigliucci I am interested in your opinion on my exegesis on virtue ethics and Kant’s deontological normative theory of ethics in regard to the act of sexual infidelity as you have defined it.

    Thank you again for this forum Professor Pigliucci.


  23. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think we disagree that infidelity is not permissible for a Stoic. Your analysis of Kant is right, but also not relevant for Stoics, since we are virtue ethicists, not deontologists.

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