The Ten Commandments are considered to be universal laws which are practiced and preached by nearly everyone, from all corners of the world. Despite widespread agreement on the moral value in these rules, they are often and continually broken by society. One of the more compelling commandments is number seven: “Thou shall not commit adultery.” Most people would agree that it is in theory immoral to cheat on your spouse or significant other, yet it continually happens. One would think the possible dire consequences of being found out would be enough to deter the adulterer. Even television has made public the ramifications of being caught in the act through shows such as “Cheaters”, yet there are obviously many more people who will continue to cheat on their spouses, some of whom will never be caught.
There must be compelling reasons for people attempting to cheat on their significant others; otherwise it would not keep happening. Some people may simply be tired of going through the motions with their spouse and are looking for a one night stand. Others may simply feel the need to do something daring and exhilarating as a break from their mundane lives. Aside from the motives to consider, the question still remains whether it is moral or immoral to commit adultery. In theory, adultery is obviously not an ethical practice, but aside from theory it can have moral value. I feel the consequences must be examined in order to determine whether it is a moral endeavor or not. If the adulterer is not caught, this means there will be no consequences to be burdened and the action of adultery is morally justified. However, if the adulterer is caught in the act, the resulting ramifications are in most cases so horrible that adultery can not be considered ethical.
The philosopher J.S. Mill’s approach to the moral dilemma of adultery would be grounded in his utilitarianistic school of thought. His basic belief is that which is ethical pleases most of the people most of the time. In order to determine how much pleasure an action will yield, Mill uses “Hedonistic Calculus”, which is based on a set of criteria that measure happiness. The first criterion of Hedonistic Calculus is certainty. This is a measure of how sure we are the action will produce happiness. In the case of adultery, the person committing adultery must certainly be fairly confident they are going to experience pleasure, and thus happiness. The next factor is intensity, which describes how happy the action will make people. The act of sexual intercourse typically produces a great deal of happiness. Duration, the next criteria, of happiness would not be very long, and thus would not be especially affirming of adultery. The next factor in Hedonistic Calculus is propinquity, which deals with how soon the happiness will result. In the case of adultery, the craving would be instantly gratified. Happiness is also measured by fecundity, which begs the question of how much happiness will the action produce by association. When committing adultery, typically only two people will be pleased and possibly many others will be harmed. The last factor in Hedonistic Calculus is purity, which asks if the action is tainted by guilt or reason. Adultery in most cases will be filled with guilt, unless the person committing the deed has absolutely no conscious at all.
When analyzing the Hedonistic Calculus, I feel Mill would argue that this specific summation of factors is only seen from the point of view of the adulterer. The only factors that are really deterring them from attempting adultery are purity and possibly fecundity. The sole reason these factors would steer them from cheating is that they may be caught. If they knew they would not be caught, then it seems that the Hedonistic Calculus would approve of adultery. However, if the Hedonistic Calculus was taken from the point of view of the adulterer’s spouse or family, then I think Mill would argue that adultery would make many more people unhappy than happy. Most of the time, adultery will only please a minority, and thus that makes it unethical.
Mill’s theory of utilitarianism also deals with sanctions. He believes there are two types of motives behind actions; external and internal. The theory behind internal sanctions is doing good for the concern of fellow human beings. External sanctions deal with doing good in order to avoid punishment. The motive behind not committing adultery would be external. The only reason they would not pursue the action would be because they are afraid of the ramifications. Mill argues that acting externally is the wrong way to act, and that we should act on an internal level. Thus I feel Mill would say adultery is not moral because external sanctions are what stop one from doing it. If we acted according to internal sanctions, which are superior to external sanctions, we would not even be thinking about adultery because of the love for our spouses and family.
Finally, the only way I think adultery could be possibly justified in the eyes of Mill would be through act utilitarianism. The situation would be viewed individually to determine how much happiness the adulterer would experience and if there was any possibility of them being caught, or how extreme the consequences would be. In a case where the adulterer’s spouse has gone frigid and they are desperate to get some, then I think Mill may argue that adultery would be morally backed. However, dealing with his theory of rule utilitarianism, I think Mill would probably make a general rule that all adultery is immoral. In this case, Mill would not advocate adultery at all.
On the contrary, I feel the philosopher Ayn Rand would advocate the act of adultery in all cases. Her beliefs are founded in ethical egoism, which is the theory claiming that which is in our rational best interest is selfishness. Rand is also highly opposed to altruism. She believes humans are selfish in nature and that we should act in accordance to these primordial ways. She states that even when it seems that we are trying to be courteous to others, we are in reality trying to benefit ourselves. Thus, there is no point in trying to act like we are unselfish and we should always act in ways to benefit ourselves. This theory is illustrated through the story of Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and shared it with fellow mankind. Upon becoming aware of this, the Gods were angered and Prometheus was tortured for the rest of eternity. If he had been looking out for himself, he would not have risked angering the Gods and thus would have been better off.
Likewise, Rand would say that we are better off being selfish when questioning whether it is ethical to commit adultery. If we feel compelled to go out and cheat on our spouses, we should do it. Even though there could be difficult consequences associated with adultery, we should not worry about how other people would feel. If we feel it is in our best interest, there is no reason why we should not do it. However, if when weighing out our decisions we come to the conclusion that committing adultery could be risky and possibly ruin ones life, then I feel Rand may argue that we would better benefit ourselves by not cheating on ones spouse.
To further expand on that thought, Rand provides a few arguments advocating ethical egoism which would seem to make adultery acceptable in all cases. Her argument on “wants and needs” states that if wants and needs are indeed personal, then we should only be concerned about ourselves. Furthermore her argument on privacy comes to the conclusion that deciding what is best for others is immoral. These arguments seem to universally support adultery. Rand argues that it is impossible to know what other people want, so therefore it would be acceptable to commit adultery in all cases because we do not know what our significant others are thinking. They may want us to go out and have a rendez-vous for all we know. Also, I feel Rand would argue that deciding adultery would harm your spouse and others is wrong because it is immoral to decide what is best for them. With that thought in mind, that must make adultery moral by association. Whether or not we think we will get away with adultery, it is perfectly reasonable to commit the act because we should only be concerned with ourselves. We can not know what other people want or what is best for them.
I believe that adultery can be justified as a moral action only if the adulterer knows for a fact that they will not be caught. It does not matter how many times they cheat; as long as they do not harm anyone else in the process, I believe that adultery can be viewed as ethical. I agree with Ayn Rand in that we should be selfish, at least some of the time. It can be invigorating to act according to our selfish primordial needs. I do put value in altruism, but there are times when I think it is important to put oneself ahead of others for the sake one’s mental well being. When an adulterer attempts to cheat on their spouse, there intrinsically must be something causing distress in the relationship, otherwise they would not consider that kind of action. Pursuing adultery may be in their best interest in that situation. Committing the act may make them feel relieved and even improve domestic relations as long as their spouse never finds out.
However, adultery can quite easily have the opposite effect. If there is any chance that the adulterer could be caught, then there is no way adultery can be morally justified. It is the type of action that can destroy relationships and tear families apart. In this sense, I agree with the utilitarianistic approach of J.S. Mill. When adultery hurts more people than it helps, then I think it is highly unethical. In nearly all cases of adultery, I believe this is the case. Most persons committing adultery are probably experiencing problems in their relationship. Cheating is probably one of the worst options they could choose to deal with those matters because it can only create more problems.
The question still remains whether or not it is possible to tell if there is any chance to be caught committing adultery. I feel that it can be a morally justified action if there is no chance to be caught. However, I do not think there is any way the adulterer can be 100% certain that their significant other will not find out about their escapades. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, meaning even the most carefully planned act of adultery can be exposed. For this reason, I believe adultery is universally unethical. The ramifications are too extreme to possibly justify adultery. In conclusion, while I believe that adultery can be considered moral if the adulterer knows they will not be caught, I believe there is no way to be certain of this, and therefore the pursuit of adultery is always unethical.