Adultery: What’s the problem?

Gen. David Petraeus resigned from his post at the CIA because of his adulterous affair. This was headline news for a week or so and has receded into the dustbin of memory. But the nagging questions that his extra-marital affair raised are unanswered.

Is there something intrinsically wrong with extra-marital relations? Or was it a sense of military honor that led to the general’s decision to leave the intelligence agency? Nothing in his CIA post would call for an automatic expulsion. Whether a CIA employee remains is contingent upon a number of other factors, such as whether the behavior compromises secrets. It is the action in relation to the bigger picture that matters. Can the person continue to perform his or her duties? That is the question.

But the military code is different and Petraeus is ashamed of what he did in his role as a military officer. He believes he owes his troops a model of untarnished virtue. We assume he believes he owes his wife as much.

Although adultery isn’t listed is an offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there is a provision in Article 134 that prohibits conduct that brings discredit to the military or conduct which is prejudicial to good order and discipline.

Petraeus is free to think his conduct brought shame upon himself and his office and that he was right to resign. But this bypasses the basic question about adultery itself. Is it intrinsically wrong?

Adultery is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. That is the end of the matter for some; nothing more needs be said. But the biblical commandments also prohibit lying, yet no one could ever remain in office if this were taken without exception. We know that Parson Weems wasn’t exactly telling the truth when he wrote that George Washington said he could never tell a lie.

And certainly there would be no army from which Petraeus could resign if the prohibition against killing were taken literally. There is killing of varying degrees, as the law and common sense recognize, ranging from self-defense to pre-meditated murder.

All rules need interpretation; all principles need to be placed in context; all prohibitions need to be examined against reason.

There is a fear that if adultery is condoned, then all sexual standards must fall. However, sex between consenting adults is different than sex in which there isn’t mutual consent. It is also different from sex with children. Using another person as a means only is immoral because it violates a person’s inherent worth and dignity. This is why sex that is imposed on another is wrong and why children are a protected category. Children don’t have the capacity to make informed consent about several things, such as going to school, voting or making medical decisions. In addition, they are vulnerable to undue pressure by adults.

Similar reasons prevail regarding restrictions around sexual relations in the workplace between a manager and a subordinate. Lockheed Martin was right in accepting Lockheed Martin CEO’s, Christopher Kubasik, resignation when an internal ethics investigation found that he had a sexual relation with an employee.

The moral problem with adultery is two-fold. It is wrong if there is deceit. Cheating is morally wrong, in sex and in other matters, because it violates the ethical standard of reciprocity and fairness. If one partner entered into marriage with the understanding of sexual fidelity, adultery is wrong if that understanding is still in place.

Adultery is wrong if it hurts others. While the parties involved may consent and a spouse may be may also be agreeable to their spouse’s extra-marital affairs, there may well be a fourth party involved who doesn’t know about what is going on and hasn’t agreed. Everyone must be honest and offer consent or the affair is morally tainted.

The second problem with adultery is that it is often psychologically damaging to the spouse. Only the most secure person doesn’t feel threatened, believing that they don’t measure up to the lover.

Betrayal hovers heavy over extra-marital affairs.

But does this mean that Petraeus should have resigned? Since we don’t know what understanding the Petraeuses and other who were involved had, it is best left to them to make the moral judgment. As for his CIA role, it is for the CIA to determine whether it compromised his duties.

In and of itself, affairs are personal matters that may or may not be acts of betrayal. Private and public morals can be separated here. If good generals must also be faultless in their character, we would likely never have good generals.




4 thoughts on “Adultery: What’s the problem?

  1. The Petraeus issue aside, you raise germane issues about adultery and ethics. In my view, the greatest violation inherent in adultery is the betrayal of trust and honesty with the person with whom has been most intimate. In my professional experience as an Ethical Culture leader, I have never encountered a cuckolded wife or husband for whom his or her spouse’s affair with another was a matter of indifference. On the contrary, it is always a matter of deepest pain, and often great anger. The very intimacy of marriage leaves the betrayed souse most vulnerable. In a relationship in which extra-marital affairs are discussed and agreed upon beforehand, this moral dynamic wouldn’t pertain, But such marriages are very rare, and most likely suffer other problems, though this is a different matter.

    A more daunting question, which is outside the scope of your blog, is how we the public are to assess the capabilities of people in positions of leadership ans responsibility who have affairs once they become known. Are we to conclude that such people are not to be trusted in positions of leadership on the presumption that if they can be dishonest toward their spouse their honesty overall is suspect? Or, can we conclude that there is a thick line between the private domain and the public, so that what goes on in a person’s marriage has no bearing on his or her moral capacity for public leadership? Are a person’s morals untrammeled, or can we contextualize a person’s moral character and behavior?

  2. Great points. When this bit of news came out, I began having this debate with everyone I spoke to… Why would it matter to his post at the CIA? Some pointed out that the fact the affair was with his biographer might have been inappropriate because it may have affected the content of her work. Or that he was acting too far out of his proclaimed character such that he could no longer be respected as the same person. There are interesting issues, but to me it seems that this is between Petraeus, his wife and his mistress. I don’t agree with his actions but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his post. I think he may have just taken the opportunity to retire to avoid getting pulled into the press scandal further. It might have just been pragmatics on his part, not a recognition that he would be fired if he didn’t do it himself.

  3. Petreus worked for the US Army and the US Code of Military Justice specifically prohibits adultery. To protect high ranking officers from breaking this rule, as much as possible they’re kept in the company of military comrades.

    When Petreus retired and became head of the CIA he was required to report any affairs to his boss. But his boss had some discretionary powers regarding how to handle the situation. Mostly, they’ve been treated as private problems unless crucial secrets were found to have been revealed or the media was fed and published salacious details.

    One of my thoughts on this is how rules can impede internalizing of ethical asperations (as in the first case, where it’s too risky to allow one to learn from their mistakes . Another is how ironic it is that personal codes of conduct in a group often distract us from larger, intrinsic goals:

    In the case of military operations, warriros by psychological necessity must at some level dehumanize the “other”

    In the case of intelligence organizations, the gaining of information often includes acts of subterfuge and the weaving of of larger webs of deception.

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