Anarchy X: The Seventh Commandment


“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Ah, the juiciest Commandment. If everybody followed this one, where would Jerry Springer’s career be? Where would most of daytime TV be? Come to think of it, most of our entertainment seems to revolve around breaking this one, so obviously it hits a sore spot for a lot of us, even the folks who aren’t married. But should it be enshrined in law?

The first and most important question is, what exactly is adultery? Don’t be too quick to answer that one. Throughout history and in different jurisdictions, even in the U.S. today, the definition can vary. In North Carolina as recently as 2010 it was as simple as premarital sex. The penalties for adultery have historically ranged from the well-known shunning (think of a certain scarlet letter) to the much more serious and permanent stoning deaths that have occurred in some countries even into the 21st century.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being a libertine (I am not; I am a libertarian, big difference), I would like to point out that I am simply arguing against making adultery as such a criminal offense. So far as I see it the government has no presiding interest in the goings on in private bedrooms. But there is a role to be had for the government relating to this Commandment, one that is both simple and just.

I asked before, “what is adultery?” My answer would be, “a violation of the marital contract.” Now that may sound to some to be somewhat akin to the famous definition of pornography (“I know it when I see it”), but in fact it is much more direct and simple than that. Each couple, when they marry, takes certain vows, and in so doing they enter into what is commonly accepted (one might even refer to it as being common law) as a binding contract. Those vows may differ from couple to couple, but that does not make them any less binding than if my lease is different than the lease you have with your landlord. In the same way that if I have a dispute with my landlord, we can choose to resolve it privately, or either one of us can choose to take it to court.

Viewed through this lens, the role of the government becomes not one of deciding what does or does not constitute proper behavior, or even what does or does not constitute a proper marriage, but simply one of performing two tasks the court system is eminently and explicitly designed for: determining the validity of a contract, and adjudicating the proper performance of contractual obligations. If “forsaking all others” was a part of the marital vows (as it commonly is, in some form or other) then adultery would be a violation of that contract, and would be grounds for a termination of that contract, presumably with favorable terms to the aggrieved party.

In this world I envision, so-called immoral behavior would not, shockingly, go up. I say “so-called immoral behavior” because I’m a big believer in expressed preference. I’ve known too many people who talk a good game about their morality but don’t live it, and often those are the same people who want to pass laws to force others to live by that same moral code. What I believe is that if you think something is wrong, don’t do it. It really is that simple. Note that I didn’t say it was easy, but then the right thing rarely is. Still, as I was reminded in a talk recently with the Anglican Anarchist, we were given free will for a reason. If you aren’t free to choose to do the wrong thing, there is no value in doing the right thing.

If the government is not dictating morality, it is up to us, as individuals and as a society, to determine what morality is. We can preach it in our churches, teach it in our homes, argue it in our coffee shops and town squares, and when and if we decide to marry, we can draw up the contracts that suit us as individuals and couples best, without someone else deciding for us what our marriage will mean.

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8 Comments on “Anarchy X: The Seventh Commandment”

  1. Absolutely agree with your sentiment that immoral behavior shouldn’t NECESSARILY be criminalized, and that coerced moral action ceases to be virtuous because it was not freely chosen behavior.

    But I think there’s another interesting point here. Even though marriage has shifted towards contracts (especially in the USA), historically speaking, marriage was not treated as a solely contractual arrangement but rather as a covenant agreement. Covenants aren’t signed–they’re ratified.

    Just look at the way we do weddings. It’s not a joint stock venture settled in a board room with fancy pens and expensive lawyers. It’s a full out liturgical ceremony with set rules and protocol. The marriage covenant ratification process is complete with an ornate ceremony adjudicated by a religious leader, vows are exchanged, physical symbols of the vows are included in the ceremony (in the case of marriage, rings), witnesses from both parties are present, followed by a grand celebration party after it’s over.

    Covenant agreements set the terms and conditions for agreement, and consequences if these terms are broken (though these terms can be slightly different, spousal abuse, criminal activity, infidelity are universally held as breaches of the covenant). The important distinction is that Covenants offer no mutual buy-out clauses–when you make the agreement, you’re bound to uphold it come hell or high water. The only way out is if the other parties doesn’t hold to the agreement, or if one of the ratifying parties dies.

    I’m not arguing that this form of marriage is the one that should be placed into law, but it is the evolutionary social norm that has survived through the ages up to today. In addition, this view of marriage is not limited to only the Christian west. Almost every culture celebrates marriage in a similar fashion. Yes of course, there are significant distinctions, and some cultures haven’t exactly figured out the proper attitudes and culture towards abuse, fidelity, and other breaches of the covenant, but the overarching principle still remains.

  2. rachel bar says:

    IMHO, which is not so humble either, the 7th commandment is the most unrealistic and against human nature. People cheat all the time, and they are not going to stop. We must change the way we think, judge and conceptualize morality. Unfortunately or fortunately in my profession I see infidelity all the time, by people who are otherwise good and caring individuals. It’s complicated.
    As to your assumption about being given free will, I’d argue with that as well. Most of who we are is pre determined by our genetic makeup, heredity, upbringing, culture and exposure. Free will is somewhat of an illusion.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      Heredity is not destiny. In any moment, regardless of what I have inherited, I have at least two choices in front of me. Granted, some people will find one path easier to take than others, and predisposition is a bitch. But that doesn’t excuse us from the burden of having to make the choice.

      Genetics, heredity, upbringing, culture, exposure, all of these influence who we are and who we become, but they are influences only, they are not determinate. If upbringing, culture, and exposure were sufficient, a horse could do calculus. If it were simply a matter of all of the above in the right quantities, we could reliably produce super-geniuses and say that nobody ever escapes the ghetto.

      People do cheat all the time, and they aren’t going to stop. People also kill all the time, from the dawn of time to just this morning. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, accept it, or cease to judge it.

      • rachel bar says:

        1 People kill but not as often as they cheat.

        2 This following article is just a tip of the iceberg:
        http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/04/14-03.html?rss=1

      • Bob Bonsall says:

        1. So let’s pick a different Commandment. People steal. I still judge them for that. People give false witness. I judge them for that. You can’t just say “people do this one thing all the time, so we have to just let it go.” Yes, it does happen frequently, but many more people get by without doing it just fine. The question is, can we as a society handle it? Do we as individuals feel okay about it? For the former, cheating is neither here nor there unless it is a violation of contract or covenant. For the latter, each person has to decide for themselves how they feel, and that is often going to be driven by experience as much as anything.

        2. Having read the article you linked to, I can’t say as I’m particularly swayed. At best it suggests that, in the heat of the moment, we are driven by the subconscious, the id, if you will. No great shock there. At worst it suggests that a computer can do slightly better than a 50/50 call on guessing whether or not someone will press a button ten seconds before they do. I can do almost as well a week in advance. We all have impulses; the question is whether you choose to act on them or control them. 60% of the time, the computer guesses you won’t. I prefer the other 40% of people.

      • rachel bar says:

        This is too long of a discussion for this forum. My basic point was that we have to judge infidelity through a different lens. I didn’t imply that it’s good or desirable, only that when people live 90 years, it’s quite likely that cheating will happen, and should we have a different criteria for managing it, as well as the viability of the marriage institution.

      • Bob Bonsall says:

        In that regard, I would argue that we need to be more open about what marriage is (and no, I am not advocating for “open marriages”). Some people will get married right after high school, be married for 70 years, and never cheat a day. Other people will get married at fifty and one of them will start cheating within a year. As Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

        Traditional marriage doesn’t work for some people, and never has. For other folks, it’s the only thing that works. I agree that we need a different criteria than one-size-fits-all “traditional marriage”. What I advocate for is letting people define their own marriage vows, define for themselves what marriage means to them, but once you have made that commitment, you are bound to it.

        It is a contract, a covenant, just as sure and secure as any other. To simply stand aside and say “cheaters gonna cheat” is to say we have no standards, that we do not hold anything as sacred, and that virtue does not exist. That’s a line I’m not ready to cross.

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