20 September 2006

The Primary Injustice of Adultery

I'll post just a few comments on adultery (moicheia) and the mean, to reply provisionally to Lesley Brown and some points made by commentators.

In my view, V.2.1130a24-28 indicates that, for Aristotle, the wrongness of moicheia is potentially complex.

e)/ti ei) o(\ me\n tou= kerdai/nein e(/neka moixeu/ei kai\ proslamba/nwn, o(\ de\ prostiqei\j kai\ zhmiou/menoj di' e)piqumi/an, ou(=toj me\n a)ko/lastoj do/ceien a)\n ei)=nai ma=llon h)\ pleone/kthj, e)kei=noj d' a)/dikoj, a)ko/lastoj d' ou)/:
Again, suppose two men to commit adultery, one for profit, and gaining by the act, the other from desire, and having to pay, and so losing by it: then the latter would be deemed to be a profligate rather than a man who takes more than his due, while the former would be deemed unjust, but not profligate.
For Aristotle, I think, adultery involves the commission of an injustice, which a person may or may not have been motivated to commit out of the vice of self-indulgence or akolasia. (See also his inclusion of moicheia in the list of injustices at V.2.1131a6.)

Lesley Brown's helpful remarks are a reminder of how Aristotle would likely have explained its injustice. Whereas I, at least, would want to say that adultery is the violation of a contract (or covenant), so that the primary wrong is always an injury to one's spouse, Aristotle--in accordance not simply with ancient Greek culture--would likely have held that adultery is a wrong only because it wrongs a man to whom some woman 'belongs'. For a man to commit adultery with another man's wife is not unlike robbing that man of his property; and, if the adulterer is married, the wrong would not consist in some offense against his own wife. Similarly, for a man to 'debauch' a free woman is for him to injure a man to whom she now 'belongs' (her father or brother) or to whom she will 'belong' (her future husband).

If the wrongness of adultery is primarily a matter of injustice (however we characterize the principal injustice), then whether it is violative of a mean reduces to the question of whether injustice is violative of a mean--which Aristotle asserts, although he is aware that the mean operates differently in the case of justice, as compared with other virtues of character.

But more on this tomorrow. And perhaps I'll share with you also a fascinating, true, and very clear example of 'adultery for the sake of monetary gain' which I came upon when collecting case studies in accounting ethics.

5 comments:

Giles Pearson said...

Dear Michael,

I doubt this is right. Besides any problems attaching to justice as a mean, the passage clearly implies that if one commits adultery one does not necessarily act unjustly (in the particular sense); one might simply be self-indulgent. So why do you suppose that a self-indulgent agent who commits adultery must ‘commission an injustice’? It would help to distinguish between (i) an unjust outcome, (ii) an act of injustice, and (iii) an act of injustice that manifests that agent as unjust. The key text here is NE 5.8. (Apologies to refer to more of my work, but I discuss this chapter and the distinctions just mentioned at length in my ‘Aristotle on acting unjustly without being unjust’, OSAP, 2006, 211-233.)

At any rate, it would not really matter if you could push adultery into the quantitative analysis through the back door of injustice (though I reiterate I do not think you can). We can easily change the example so that the objects in question do not involve a pros heteron component (and thereby take (in)justice out of the equation). Take, for example an agent who fails to take pleasure in healthy food but does take pleasure in getting stinking drunk. This agent, it could be said, takes pleasure in the right number of objects, but the wrong objects.

All best,
Giles

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Giles,

That's another publication of yours I'll look forward to reading.

Your (i)-(iii) are helpful.

If 'an unjust outcome' includes an unfair distribution of burdens and benefits, which at least one party would never freely consent to, then it seems to me that adultery is an unjust outcome (on either way of understanding its wrongness, the ancient or the modern).

Typically, adultery is not, however, an act of injustice, or done out of injustice. But that it can be these is the point (I take it) of the passage I quoted. Aristotle's strange example isolates a case where something else, besides sensual passion, is responsible for someone's bringing out what amounts to an 'unjust outcome'. (And that something else can be at work to cause wrongdoing here, I take it, is supposed to show that there is room for some other virtue, which must now be reckoned, viz. particular justice.)

Well, it would not be surprising if we differed on the interpretation of that difficult passage.

But what do you say about Aristotle's inclusion of adultery in his catalogue of injustices, along with theft and murder?

M

Giles Pearson said...

Dear Michael,
I claimed that in committing adultery ‘one does not necessarily act unjustly’. Of course I accept that one can act unjustly by committing adultery. I too take that to be part of the point of the passage in question. I took you to be promoting the stronger thesis that all acts of adultery involve injustice. It seems that in so far as you hold this, what you really want is not: all acts of adultery are acts of injustice, but: all acts of adultery involve an unjust outcome.

But I am questioning whether, for Aristotle, even this is true. From NE 5.2, it appears that an unjust outcome (in the particular sense) would involve someone gaining an unfair share of money, honour or safety (1130a31-1130b5) (this list seems to be referred to again at 1130b31-32). If so, adultery might bring about an unjust outcome (hence it can appear on the list), but why should we think that it always does so?

Your notion of ‘an unjust outcome’ (which adultery no doubt always does imply) seems to import some broader notion of injustice.

Best,
Giles

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Why not take NE V.ii as acknowledging that there are two distinct kinds of adultery? Pleonectic and akolastic adultery, let’s call them. The first is a vice of injustice, the second a vice of self-indulgence. They are essentially distinguished by the different ignoble motives ( wrong reasons ) whence they spring. The pleonectic adulterer deliberately sets to seduce someone’s wife for some gain; the akolastic adulterer fails to control his behaviour and falls willy-nilly into an illicit liason. Only the former, Aristotle clearly tells us, would be deemed guilty of an injustice.

This leaves us with two questions about whether adulterous acts violate some mean. I think it will hard to show that either the akolastic or pleonectic adulterer is essentially a violator of means, but we are promised at least something concerning the latter, so let me fall silent in anticipation.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Giles,

I wonder what you would say about the other items on the list at 1131a6-8--theft, poisoning, false witness. These don't seem to be only sometimes unjust.

If Aristotle says, as he does, that moicheia is always wrong, and if he moreover puts it on a list of injustices, isn't it natural to take him to believe that it's always wrong because it is unjust (i.e. an 'unjust outcome', in your sense)?

The lists of goods you refer to are open-ended. I wonder if Aristotle's sense isn't captured well enough by our similar phrase, 'benefits and burdens'--in which case it seems clear that these are not reciprocated when one spouse commits adultery (on either understanding of moicheia).

And for adultery to constitute an outcome violative of particular injustice, wouldn't it be enough for the charge "that's not fair" to have bite? Yet it would seem that it does (especially in cultures in which a family has an economic purpose, and where one consequence of adultery may be that a man unwittingly raises a child not his own).

(Anonymous: I intend to reply to your points in a later post. I'm not ignoring them!)

Best,
M





Posted by Michael Pakaluk