18 September 2006

Adultery a Counterexample to the Mean?

"So you've gone to excess again, have you?" --That's not the rebuke that a spouse is likely to hear, after he or she has just confessed to an adulterous liaison. But then, does adultery violate some kind of 'mean' or 'intermediate'? Did Aristotle think so?

Presumably if it does violate a mean, it does so with respect to the 'object parameter' ('with whom' one has sex). But (as Hursthouse pointed out) adultery is not a matter of getting the number wrong: imagine a man who stops having sex with his wife when he begins having sex with his mistress. He still does something wrong--commits adultery. And a difference in which object (the wrong person) seems a difference in quality or kind, not degree, which the Doctrine of the Mean requires.

Nor can one say that the problem is in how much pleasure one takes in adulterous sex, as Giles Pearson points out in his paper:

On Aristotle’s account of temperance, a self-indulgent person may be motivated by bodily pleasure to commit adultery (see e.g. NE 5.2.1130a24-27). So imagine an agent who is motivated in this way, but who also lacks the motivation to pursue something he should take pleasure in, e.g. healthy food (see NE 3.11.1119a16-18). It could be said (following Hursthouse) that this agent takes pleasure in the right number of objects, but the wrong objects. Curzer would reply that this case does not require us to give up the quantitative dimension to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, since we could say that this agent takes pleasure in adultery ‘too much’ and takes pleasure in healthy food ‘too little’. But Aristotle would not accept such a story for adultery, since he refuses to talk about this in quantitative terms. He claims that adultery does not admit of a mean; that its very name implies that it itself is bad, not the excess or deficiency of it; and that it is not possible ever to be right with regard to it - one must always be wrong (NE 2.6.1107a8-17). But Curzer’s strategy seems committed to the reverse of this: some agents, on his view, take pleasure in adultery ‘too much’ (those who are prone to commit it at all), and some agents take pleasure in it ‘the right amount’ (those who are not prone to commit it at all). Aristotle, I submit, would disagree.
If one wants to suggest (along the lines of a previous post of mine) that adultery can violate the mean insofar as someone "in committing adultery shows an excessive fondness for the pleasures of sex", Pearson has this reply ready:
It might be argued that though adultery is not something we can take too much or too little pleasure in, quantitative talk is still always possible because we can view adultery as derivative of something else that it is sensible to characterise quantitatively. It has been suggested to me that the adulterer might be characterised quantitatively as too ready to do illegal things or too inconsiderate towards his wife or too prone to seek sexual activity. My response is as follows. The suggestions, it seems to me, fall into two categories. Either they are meant to be activities in which the appropriate amount is actually zero (as, presumably, with doing illegal things, or being inconsiderate towards one’s wife). Or they are meant to be activities that can be sought too much or too little (as, presumably, with seeking sexual activity). But, with the former, quantitative talk is no more appropriate than it was with adultery: claiming that the adulterer is ‘too ready’ to be inconsiderate to his wife implies that one can be just ready enough to be inconsiderate to one’s wife; which, as with “the Nazis killed ‘too many’ Jews”, is a misleading implicature, if one thinks that one should not be inconsiderate at all. Whereas, with the latter, because the thing proposed (e.g. sexual activity) is not inherently bad, there is no reason to think that our original bad activity will be adequately characterised by the newly proposed excess. Why, for example, should we think that adultery is adequately characterised in terms of an excessive desire for sexual activity? Why shouldn’t some people want to take pleasure in sexual activity to just the right amount (i.e. desire to have sex just as often as is appropriate), but to do so with women other than their wives (e.g. want to have sex with a mistress instead of their wife)? The adulterer need not be overly obsessed with sex, he simply needs to want to have sex with a woman he should not. If so, adultery will not reduce to an excessive desire for sexual activity.
I had complained that Hursthouse's 'fearless phobic' example was contrived--I meant not merely that it was not the sort of thing we would practically speaking be concerned about, but also that any psychologically healthy person who feared the squeak of a mouse would eo ipso fear hand-to-hand combat, and anyone who did not fear the latter would not fear the former. That sort of case, I thought, does not correspond to 'the human'.

But, as Pearson pointed out, the adultery case does not suffer from these problems. So do we find here a better, and clearer, counterexample to the doctrine of the mean?