Adultery, who does it hurt?

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A general is relieved of command because of adultery. A congressman is shamed and defeated in an election because of adultery. A senator decides not to run for re-election because of adultery.

Why in the world does adultery matter? What does it matter who the general is sleeping with? He can surely still deploy troops well. What does it matter whether a congressman is sleeping with one woman or seven? He can still craft laws and vote responsibly. Sure it’s interesting that she’s sleeping with him or that he’s off in a motel with another woman. Great gossip. Titillating to read. But that’s of no concern of ours.

They’re not like you and me. They think that adultery is a private matter, just between consenting adults. Perhaps it is — if they’re not lying about it. Because it’s not the sex lives of the powerful that matter. It’s the lying, the fear of exposure. And that’s because it was hidden, a source of shame, a lie.

They think that adultery is just a grown-up’s choice, a private matter, nothing of any moral consequence, or at least none of our business. They figure that they can be a good general, a good congressman no matter who their lover is. But they know that sleeping with someone when they’ve made a vow to a wife, or to a husband, or to a lover is cheating. It’s breaking trust. So they conceal it.

Sure, everyone does it, they say. Yes, we’re all pushed by our sexual desires. And we all make mistakes. But when we don’t own up to those mistakes, when we conceal and lie, then we show how deeply our lives are affected by our out-of-control sexual urges and desire for power.

There is a moral issue. Cheating and lying are wrong. Breaking trust is wrong. But if two people decide it’s OK for them to sleep with other people? We may have our views, but it’s their lives. It’s when one of them hides it that he or she confirms our own view that it’s wrong to break trust.

Cheating, lying, breaking trust. That’s the problem. Because they know it’s wrong. If found out there will be great hurt. They want it all — kissing and loving on the side and solid at home. But they can have only a perverted relation at home, built on lies, built on deception — uncaring, unloving, unkind.

It’s the lies, the fear of being found out that’s the problem for our generals, our senators, our congressmembers, for anyone with trust, with responsibility. The senator can be manipulated — or more bluntly, blackmailed. The congressman breaks a campaign spending law for his mistress while voting for more stringent penalties for those laws. The general won’t speak his mind because he’s afraid of exposure. We can’t trust them if they’re lying all day long. We can’t trust them if they’re afraid to be found out.

If a senator has four lovers and her husband is fine with that, that’s their business. If a general is brazen about his affairs, that’s no big deal for trusting his judgment. But if a president is hiding all day long, how will he be honest with us?

Vows matter — and they know it. Vows to their lovers, vows to their husbands, vows to their wives and yes, vows to us. That’s why they lie. That’s why adultery matters.

Arf, formerly known as Dr. Richard L. Epstein, is the author and publisher of books on reasoning and is head of the Advanced Reasoning Forum in Socorro.