Proponents of traditional sexual morality can take some comfort in the fact that, a few cynics and radical secularists aside, there is widespread agreement about the moral wrong of sexual infidelity in marriage. Although the norm requiring sexual exclusivity within marriage can sometimes seem as if it is honored more in the breach than the observance, the response to recent cases of adultery among public figures is not limited to accusations of hypocrisy. Most commentators, and most ordinary citizens, agree that married persons must remain sexually faithful to their spouses and that failure in this regard constitutes a particularly egregious betrayal of the marriage vows.
This consensus is not shared, however, when it comes to a different form of extramarital sexual activity, namely, that between unmarried persons. While our culture may be quite intolerant of sexual infidelity within marriage, it is deeply tolerant of sexual activity before marriage, even when it is between those with no intention of marrying one another. Such sexual activity is considered normal, even beneficial, and those who recommend abstinence and chastity are typically viewed as reactionary outliers advocating a lost cause.
It is unclear, however, whether these two attitudes are mutually coherent, or if they can be consistently sustained in the long run. Their co-existence as a general social matter is relatively recent, and there are reasons to doubt that this split view of the morality of extramarital sexual acts will be with us for long.
To see why, it is necessary to understand the argument against sexual infidelity within marriage. On the best account of marriage, three claims are crucial.
First, marriage is a great good for human persons, attractive to men and women as intrinsically fulfilling. It is not just for the sake of some external benefits such as security, or even stability in the raising of children, that marriage is desirable. It is desirable and good for its own sake.
Second, marriage involves, by its nature, a mutual commitment by spouses to a complete sharing of lives. The totality of this commitment is essential. Human persons make a variety of commitments of greater or lesser scope and duration in forming friendships, business relationships, and other communities. But marriage is different from all these: the commitment is, in principle, to a complete and mutual gift of self to the other, a complete sharing of the lives of the two people at all levels of their existence.
Third, this mutual sharing and intertwining of lives—this unification of two in one—extends not just through those immaterial aspects of the spouses’ lives such as intellect, will, character, and emotion, but down to the bodily being of the spouses in the act of sexual intercourse. In that act, spouses literally become “one flesh” as they perform a biological act together that neither is capable of performing on his or her own.
The implications of this account of marriage for sexual infidelity in marriage are significant. Sexual intercourse between spouses is the completion of the marriage commitment to a complete sharing of lives that begins in the marital vows but remains incomplete until that unity to which the spouses have committed themselves becomes instantiated physically in sexual intercourse. But because spouses have mutually committed themselves to a total and complete sharing of their lives, there is a form of exclusivity built into their marital acts. To become one flesh with another, not one’s spouse, would vitiate one’s commitment to full unity with one’s spouse.
Suppose that most persons in our culture, who are still broadly influenced by traditional morality, implicitly accept something like this view of marriage. Suppose further that something like this view underlies their repugnance at the idea of infidelity in marriage. Can such persons also consistently maintain their considerably more laissez faire views about sex before marriage?
The answer that defenders of chastity have put forth recently relies on the account just given. While sexual intercourse—the physical union that makes couples one flesh—is the completion of the marriage union, and so an essential constituent of that marital good, the union itself, absent the good of marriage, does not realize or participate in any other good just as such. Thus, couples who unite physically outside of marriage are at best pursuing a simulacrum of a good, and at worst mutually making use of each other for their own physical pleasure.
A proponent of a more relaxed sexual morality could very well respond at this point in the following way. Surely the activity of sex is available to serve other goods outside marriage. Sexual activity between the unmarried could be in service of the goods of friendship, play, knowledge, or aesthetic experience. Some have held that such sexual acts involve an aspect of the good of religion as well. These defenders of the more relaxed view can surely also point out, rightly, that sexual activity in marriage likewise seems to participate in all these goods in addition to the marital good. So why must sex be limited to only those instances in which it also participates in good of marriage?
To this difficult question there are many possible responses, but here I wish to put forth merely one, of a dialectical nature. It is not a knock-down deductive argument, but one directed towards those who still accept the traditional prohibition of extramarital sexual activity for the married.
Consider a conversation between two people, something that happens all the time. From the standpoint of human action, such conversations must have a point, something that makes them worthwhile, and the possible points of conversation are multifarious. Some conversations are an expression and instantiation of friendship, others of the good of play. Some are pursued for the sake of knowledge, others as a way of experiencing a form of aesthetic experience. Some, such as prayer (a conversation with the divine), are for the sake of the good of religion. Like sexual intercourse, a conversation is clearly capable of realizing a number of different and important human goods.
Notably, however, no one thinks that conversations, when they begin also to be pursued for the sake of the good of marriage, take on an essential exclusivity. Even though married couples rightly and often converse in order to shape and realize their marital union, no one thinks that becoming married removes conversation to the sphere of what is exclusively marital. While marital secrets, perhaps, may be betrayed in conversation, we do not identify something like conversational infidelity or conversational adultery as a wrong committed any time a person has a conversation with someone other than their spouse.
A similar pattern may be seen across the range of other activities that may be pursued for a variety of ends, such as giving gifts, or eating a meal. Such activities may and should be integrated into married life. They do not, however, become exclusive to married life, even if they now need to be regulated in a different way than when the spouses were single.
Now, while it is difficult for defenders of traditional sexual morality to explain why sexual activity cannot be pursued for goods other than marriage outside of marriage, I think it is an impossible question for proponents of the more relaxed view to say why, if conversations, gifts, and meals do not become exclusive when incorporated into marriage, sexual intercourse does. That is to say, if proponents of the relaxed view believe that sexual intercourse, like conversation, can be pursued prior to marriage for a diverse range of goods and amongst a diverse range of other partners, why is it that sexual activity cannot be pursued within marriage, as conversation can, for that same range of reasons and with the same range of other partners?
The answer to this question cannot be that the marriage vows pick out sexual intercourse as something that will henceforth be considered exclusively marital, for this leaves unanswered why that should be picked out rather than conversations or gifts. Commitment to exclusivity in sex already acknowledges that sexual intercourse, one-flesh union, is special. But by aligning sexual activity with these other activities prior to marriage, the relaxed view robs itself of a coherent justification for being less relaxed among the married.
The traditional view must hold something like the following: sexual intercourse is, just as such, the realization of the good of marriage in a way that a conversation is not, just as such, the realization of some particular good. And, when a particular act is, just as such, the realization of some particular good, then it should be used to realize other goods only when it at the same time realizes the good that it just as such instantiates. To act otherwise fails in some way—difficult, clearly, to articulate—to respect the good to which the act stands in such a unique relationship.
Interestingly, many proponents of the relaxed view probably hold similar views in regards to other acts and goods. Consider again the meal. It is true that this does not become exclusive to marriage, and a meal can be shared for a wide variety of purposes. But a meal is as such a realization of the good of human life, for nutrition is essential to and a constituent of our biological life. Yet proponents of the relaxed view are likely to be appalled by the Roman practice of bingeing and purging, even if other goods were successfully pursued in Roman banquets. As another example, while gifts may be given in a playful or artistic manner, proponents of the relaxed view are likely to be uneasy at the idea of a giving of “gifts” in which the giver fully expects a return, or has no desire that the good of the recipient be furthered by the gift. For the giving of gifts as such is a realization of the good of sociality and friendship, and “gifts” divorced from that good fail to respect it.
To repeat, this principle, that acts which as such realize a particular good ought not to be pursued independently of that good, is one that needs further articulation and defense. My purposes here have been primarily dialectical, however. If proponents of the relaxed view accept this general principle, than they should abandon the relaxed view. If they do not accept the principle, then it is unclear how they can account for the differences between conversations, gifts, and meals, and sexual union, when all are pursued within marriage.
This dilemma suggests a disquieting possibility. Unless as a culture we return to the traditional and consistent view that sexual union should be pursued only in marriage, then we might find ourselves in a world in which even for the married the expectation of sexual exclusivity becomes radically diminished or eliminated. Just how bad for the institution of marriage that would be is not difficult to apprehend.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.