Jonnie Comet17 March 1999
In an ethical sense the vilest form of deceit is that of marital infidelity, for there can be no moral defence for it. One has only to count the cost in terms of the number of its victims hurt by the deceit to begin to see the point. First in a case of marital infidelity, the spouse is hurt, naturally. Then the children are, if there are any. Then come the family of the spouse, and quite often the family of the deceiver as well– actually everyone who was present at the wedding will feel painfully let down. Then there are all the people on the third party’s side as well. Then of course there is God, to whom all promises were made in the first place. I don’t know about everyone; but I was taught that wilfully breaking a promise to God is not good grounds for a ticket to Heaven.
What other deceit can compare to this? Perhaps even high treason is not as ethically unjustifiable. I acknowledge that in some cases one man’s treason could lead to full-scale war; but at a certain point you’ve got to recognise that, seen in an ethical light, the motives for the deceit necessary for treason might be much more reasonable than they seem in name alone. I mean, it is possible that treason against the current ideology of one’s own country could be said to be patriotic. Under certain circumstances it could even be exquisitely noble.
The IRA may serve as a prime example. One argument can be that these people have betrayed the very ideals of their own belief system– ideally, who may kill in the name of ideological liberty? –let alone Christian unity? The IRA have committed countless crimes– and sins– for their cause. Yet as much as it pains me to admit anything virtuous about the IRA, I have to acknowledge that these people sincerely believe they are trying to achieve a noble end. They have rationalised that their ends are more important than what they must do to achieve them. And therefore the pain and suffering they cause must be viewed as unfortunate but temporary, because what they are trying to vindicate is a society; and to them that is far more valuable as a benefit than the loss of numerable human lives are as a cost.
In that light then, what is the end of an adulterous affair, and how can it be ethically or ideologically justified? My position is simply that it cannot be. It is nothing but cowardly to sneak round behind a spouse’s back in the name of sexual fulfillment or emotional freedom or psychological therapy or some other feebly self-centred excuse, all the while endeavouring to convince yourself you are doing the right thing for yourself at last. Any attempted defence of that is fraught with ethical hypocrisy. No one person’s individual concept of temporal happiness can ever be considered such a priceless ideal that it should entail the breach of a trust given in front of God and so many witnesses, whilst incurring catastrophic pain and anxiety for so many other individuals, about whose feelings the person was supposed to care deeply, by the deceit.
I will not now delve into the many reasons why an individual might think himself in a bad marriage, or how such an individual might seek remedies to the root problems of such a marriage short of absolving the entire union. The individual who regards his own vows and beliefs as fundamental and priceless will keep them upon penalty of death; but this is a rare breed in such in today’s commercial, disposable society. It must be accepted therefore that to the vast majority of modern people, marriages, and the feelings of the individuals concerned, are seen as cheap and replaceable so long as they can be readily got rid of, and hopefully for some material and personal gain into the bargain.
Yet no matter how bad a marriage seems, there has always been a legitimate option to staying faithful to one, especially in these post-Vatican II times. The first excuse proffered might be that a cruel, controlling, vindictive spouse may not be willing to ‘grant’ a divorce. But that is bollocks. If such were true then your whole legal insistence on divorce would only benefit from your adherence to a strong ethical stance which makes your adversary look worse. The spouse may go out and get a good lawyer and intimidate you with the thought that the case will go in favour of the more expensive counsel. I say, go out and get a better lawyer. All it takes is money. In the end the monetary cost is immaterial– it will reap dividends in the trust you earn whilst you are seen to be doing the morally right thing.
The single worst thing you can do when you perceive yourself in a bad marriage is to begin your ‘new life’ whilst remaining de facto married to another. To do so is to forfeit all substance and appearance of virtue. No observer of your extramarital affair can ever comfortably condone it or look upon what you call a ‘plight’ with true compassion. There is something profoundly disturbing about beholding a deliberate deceit against another which you would never want to suffer yourself. This is part of the great hypocrisy of infidelity– that to free yourself from your ‘bad’ marriage, you must do to your spouse what would certainly have made you call it a bad marriage if your spouse had done the same to you. You must hurt someone else in order to save yourself from pain.
No belief system which can attempt to defend this can ever be said to be a true ‘society’. The ideal of individual freedom cannot be without limits; and those limits must be in the best interests of society as a whole. It is incumbent upon the whole concept of a society that no one person may have any right to anything when to exercise that right infringes upon the equivalent rights of other members of the same society.
To believe otherwise is to defend hypocrisy– which, logically, cannot be defended. A society based upon the unlimited freedoms of the individual is no more than a society of one. Any collection of such individuals can lead to a kind of ethical anarchy, a dog-eat-dog world in which no-one can ever be safe from the whims of others. Despite many individuals’ claims otherwise, the concept of limited personal freedom is at the heart of the official tenets of every so-called ‘free society’ in the world– or, at least, the ones that truly survive as such.
For one who would consider closing a bad marriage, the only correct thing when confronted with the opportunity for an affair is to appeal to the third party’s patience. Say, ‘Hold that thought, whilst I extricate myself from Situation Number One.’ Don’t even talk about an affair– not even once, in a public place, over coffee. To court even the idea of breaking the marriage vows is to have already done so.
Now I know that inherent in this is a risk of going through all the trouble to extricate yourself from a bad match only to find, once free, that your intended paramour is no longer interested– in which case you will feel that you have lost twice. But in this risk is the nobility of fidelity, if not to your undesirable marriage partner, at least then to a standard of morality. Desperately trying to play two games at the same time for fear of losing at one before you have got the other assured is cowardly and immature– after all, most teenagers get it wrong too.
It takes great courage to stand up and say, ‘I believe this is bad, therefore I shall make getting out of it my first priority– but I will not transgress morality to do it.’ In such one-on-one personal matters the ends cannot be made to justify the means, for, ethically speaking, the means themselves are the ends. Your method of pursuing your own happiness will ultimately be your own happiness, and vice versa. You may yet incur the sadness of others by seeking a divorce; but at least those left to suffer behind you will not have had the heartbreak of finding you a traitor to their trust as well.
It is a truth universally accepted that there can be no promise of goodness without risk of suffering. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something– and I submit that, in the long run, when viewed rationally, the cost you do not recognise now will prove morally too expensive before long; for, in the end, no-one trusts a traitor.
* * *