Advanced Search

If, within a marriage, one partner denies the other sex, can they morally still

If, within a marriage, one partner denies the other sex, can they morally still demand that the other refrain? Note: assuming the standard Western marriage, with the assumption of exclusive monogamy. In other terms: Can we demand of our partners, in a marriage, "You can only have sex with me, and none other, and I'm not going to have sex with you".

Nothing is easy in this subject!

I think most people find the promises inherent to monogamy to be moral ones--though some philosophers have questioned whether promising to another exclusive access to one's own body is one that actually can be morally made. The tricky part lies in finding (and then explaining the morality of) the correct position between extremes that do not look correct to most people. At one extreme, most of us do not think that even an uncoerced agreement to become another's personal possession (as a slave, for example) is acceptable. At the other extreme, we do think that refusing to agree to take part in a sexually exclusive relationship with another--monogamy, in other words--on the grounds that no one has a right to expect such exclusivity from us, is also inappropriate. So the general question goes something like this: How much limitation of personal autonomy are we morally prepared to sanction by the agent's own willing forfeit of that autonomy to another's exclusive use or control? This may seem to be a very stark way of putting the issue, but it seems to me to be also an accurate way to frame the problem.

If we do understand the problem this way, then it is not clear to me why someone's forfeit of their own sexual autonomy to another must be conditioned on the other providing sexual access. People in monogamous relationships frequently deny sexual access to each other temporarily ("not tonight, dear, I have a headache!") and no one seems to think this is a moral problem! Having sex when one is unwilling--even within a committed monogamous relationship--is certainly not something we would regard as a moral duty.

But even so, the situation you may have in mind might be of at least two different sorts. In one case one might imagine, there might be a couple who negotiate their relationship in the terms you describe: A says to B, "Dear B, I will be in a monogamous relationship with you, but the conditions are these: (i) you have sex with no one else, and (ii) you also do not have sex with me." Can B not morally accept such terms? I don't see why not! Can A not morally offer such terms? Again, I don't see why not! There are even cases comparable to this that we generally regard as entirely morally acceptable--e.g. Catholic priests' vows of chastity. Why cannot a vow of chastity be a morally acceptable condition of a relationship?

It gets a bit trickier, however, if the rule of chastity is introduced subsequent to the original agreement of a relationship, and contrary to the understandings that grounded the relationship at its inception. In a case like this, we might imagine A and B becoming involved, committing to a monogamous relationship that is sexually active, and then A decides to renege--permanently. One can certainly see why B would feel a bit put out by A's decision. But, your question remains: Can A not morally make such a decision? I don't see why not. In effect, A is telling B that chastity is henceforth a condition of their relationship continuing. It seems to me that A has every right to insist on that condition as one that must be met for the relationship to continue. It also seems to me that B has every right to reject the condition, and hence, to elect not to continue the relationship on the terms now on offer. I don't see that A can demand that B accept the new terms, all other things equal. But as the old saw goes, relationships have to be renewed every day: If A now demands new terms for the relationship, B can take it or leave it!

But there is at least one further twist. Things can happen to people that change their lives drastically, and part of what wwe take ourselves to be doing, when we agree to monogamous relationships, is to be with the other "in sickness and in health" and all the rest. What if A now demands chastity from B because A is no longer sexually functional because of some accident or disability, but despite the loss of sexual function still expects B to remain faithful to the relationship A and B established and vowed to maintain? Infidelity can be very threatening to relationships, and A may reasonably not wish for B to put their relationship at risk. When B accepted the standard vows people make in entering the relationship, is it reasonable for B to suppose that loss of sexual access for any reason at all would nullify the vows B made? It doesn't seem obvious to me why that should be the case!

There is no question that people feel these issues very deeply, and so it seems to me that the best advice to give to people considering entering into a monogamous relationship is that they do some serious thinking and talking together about the degree to which they are--and the degree to which they would not be--willing to make adjustments to their expectations. But no matter how carefully any couple does this, the unpredictability of the future can produce unexpected and unanticipated problems. Having the sort of relationship in which demands are central features is probably already a bad start. Good communication and great flexibility are far more likely to yield sustainable results. In the end, these will be more reliable than knowing that one has the moral right to make some demand on one's partner.

Is love selfish?

Is love selfish? I cannot be in a relationship because I think I have discovered that love is selfish. Consider my argument. Premises: I choose not to be selfish. I choose to reason logically. What does it mean to love? Does it mean satisfying your wants more than those of your lover, or the other way round? IF it means satisfying the wants of your lover more than your own, then you would react in the following way: If your lover deserts you willingly and decides to be with somebody else, you would be happy for your lover and not be jealous (since by being happy for your lover, you are satisfying his/her wants and not opposing them). On the other hand, IF to love means satisfying your own wants more than those of your lover, then you would react in the following way: If your lover deserts you willingly and decides to be with somebody else, you would be upset and jealous. Which way would you react? Assuming you are upset and jealous, then you are selfish. However, such selfishness is needed for a...

I think there is a difference between being selfish and recognizing that one has one's own legitimate interests. For example, when I play cards with someone I generally want to win, although I recognize the perfectly acceptable motives of my friends to win also. If I am in love with someone I do want them to be happy, but not at my expense, and since I have my own interests here I am entitled to pursue them. Should I be happy for someone with whom I am love and who was in love with me to break off their relationship with me if they think this would make them happier? No, since although I do not selfishly seek to keep them bound up with me forever, it is in my interests perhaps to continue the relationship I originally had, if I can, since it is a relationship that I enjoy. If I become convinced that the other person no longer has anything like his or her original feelings then it becomes increasingly implausible to keep the relationship up, of course. Here we reach the nub of the issue, because it is often unclear what is happening when relationships come to an end. Are they really at an end or just in a hiatus? And even if they are at an end there is in many cultures something rather noble about unrequited love, very much the stuff of romantic literature. So you can hold onto romance in a reasonably unselfish way, it seems.

Is is possible to truly love someone, yet still do things that would knowingly

Is is possible to truly love someone, yet still do things that would knowingly hurt them (i.e., acts of infidelity)?

It depends on how you define "true love". Indeed ambivalence is one of the strongest features of human beings, so, typically, you have an ambiguous relation with your objects of "true love". My 7 years old son told me last night: "Maman, (he's French) do you know who is the person I love most?" I replied "No" and he said "You". Then he asked again: "Maman, do you know who is the person I hate most?" I replied "No" and he said "You". I think he truly loves me, still this is the best he can do with his love.

When, for example, a man has his heart broken by a woman he loves, why does it

When, for example, a man has his heart broken by a woman he loves, why does it sometimes feel like a mini death? Is there perhaps some sort of a parallel between breaking up and dying, between the end of a relationship and the end of life?

Sure, I think there's a parallel, particularly if you consider that a person is not an isolated, self-contained entity, but rather a being-in-relation. Your identity is defined partly by your relationships with particular others, and the more intimate the relationship, the more it contributes to your identity. Intimacy is a matter of sharing first-person perspectives (what the world looks like from your eyes is shared with your intimate, and what the world looks like from hers is shared with you) as well as plans, goals, projects, etc. In fact, in a truly intimate relationship, you'll adopt the plans, goals, projects, etc. of your intimate as your own.

When the relationship ends, especially if it is ended unilaterally, all of this that had been part of you is to some extent alienated, which would suggest that your identity is changed. The person you were, in intimate relation with that particular other, doesn't exist anymore. So it is, in an analogous sense, a death. But it's not as complete or final as death, because you can -- and likely will -- enter into other intimate relationships which will make their own unique contributions to your identity.

I married from back home because of certain cultural pressures. He seemed like

I married from back home because of certain cultural pressures. He seemed like an all around nice guy but when he got here he changed. He admitted that he had put on a show in order to convince me to bring him here and now he is trying to control me. He also always fights with me over money matters. At the moment we are separated but not divorced and I am contemplating whether or not I should divorce him. He does not leave me alone but constantly hurts me and thinks I am cheating on him. I also caught him trying to start affairs with women both abroad and local and I feel I cannot trust him. When he came here I liked him but now I feel little to nothing towards him and I think he wants to use me for some end (hence why he wants to get back). Also he frequently hints that it's good to use women for money and etc., and then dump them for other women... Although this may not be the right place to ask such a question but what do you philosophers think of the situation? I think it would be interesting...

Leave him. He's a creep.

Let me explain. From your description of him, your husband seems to regard and treat you as a mere object for his own satisfaction, and his satisfaction consists largely in giving you pain. If this is accurate, then it seems to me that you are under no obligation to continue to tolerate his company.

I am in love (or as convinced of it as I've ever been), but the woman I love is

I am in love (or as convinced of it as I've ever been), but the woman I love is my best friend. This situation leaves me in emotional ruin after every time we see each other. I am sure that she is not romantically interested in me. What I need to know is: to what extent am I obligated to make my feelings clear to her, even if doing so runs the risk of damaging our friendship?

I don't think you are in any way obligated to make your feelings known, since we are not obliged to tell someone we know everything we think about them. For example, there might be things about a person who is a friend yet which we do not like, and we are not obliged to make this known to them, and many friendships and indeed more romantic relationships would collapse were perfect frankness to be pursued.

There is something rather exciting about unrequited love and also noble about remaining silent in a situation where the object of love is unaware of one's feelings. It might not be much of a consolation, but it is worth reflecting on how banal a relationship can be when both parties are in love with each other, while by contrast where one is and the other is not all sorts of interesting possibities arise.

There are billons of people on this earth, and yet so many people proclaim that

There are billons of people on this earth, and yet so many people proclaim that they have found their one-and-only soul mate. Is it reasonable of them to say that if they haven't met everyone on the earth? Is there really such a thing as a "soul mate"? If not, then is it safe to assume that people simply settle for what is within their reach and then redefine what love means to them?

The idea of a "soul mate" probably has its origins in the speech Plato gives to Aristophanes in the Symposium, where originally human beings were combined, but then later separated by Zeus. This is a mythical explanation of how we look for our "other half." My huncch is that much of what counts for someone as an indication of being a "soul mate" will have to do with shared interests and other common points of view, and given how culture-bound much of this sort of thing is, it seems unlikely that a search of the whole world would be very helpful. This is not to say that two people of different cultures cannot fall in love and have strong and lasting relationships (my own marriage of of this sort, in fact). But I think the idea that two people will be just perfect for one another, before they even meet, so that if they do meet, they can recognize this perfection forever after, is certainly a myth. It may be that most people "settle for what is within their reach," as you put it, but this does not mean that what follows is that they "redefine what love means to them." Relationships begin with two people who are compatible enough to build a relationship. But every relationship takes effort, patience, and persistence. I think it is more likely that one's "soul mate" will be the result of these sorts of efforts, not something to be found antecedent to such efforts.

I had a friend ask me this question some time ago and we tried to talk through

I had a friend ask me this question some time ago and we tried to talk through it but ended up still stumped. The story went: if there is a husband and wife in a happy marriage but the husband goes away on a business trip, maybe has a little too much to drink or just has a lapse in judgement, and has a one-night stand with another woman and knows it was a morally wrong act does he have the obligation to tell her even though it will devastate her and potentially end her marriage? Or should the husband keep quiet and live quietly with the shame he has brought on his marriage? If an immoral act has already been committed does it do any good to be truthful about it and bring further harm to others, as would happen if the wife were told? It just seems that if it is immoral to do harm to others than telling the wife might just be as immoral as the act of adultery.

Whether an act is moral or immoral will vary depending on the moral system that's assumed. For example, some people think morality is matter of doing one's duty, while others think it is a matter of the best overall consequences, or of building a virtuous character, and so on. I'm not suggesting that all of these moral systems are equal, but they do lead to different answers, and which system is better is a different question (a meta-ethical question) than whether a given act is moral or immoral.

That being said, most moral systems would recommend the husband in this scenario not tell his wife. Confession may be good for the soul, but it's not an end in itself. It's a means to something else of moral worth: duty to God, perhaps, or character-building, or good consequences. In the absence of these ends, confession seems to be a rather selfish act.

One consideration in assessing the morality of this confession would surely be whether the wife ought to know: does she have a right to this information? Is it a right she would waive, given the chance? Is she more wronged by the act itself, by having to face the act, or by not having the information she needs to make a decision about continuing the marriage -- or about her own health-care needs, given the prevalance of HIV and other disease?

Another consideration suggests itself from the scenario you draw, in which the husband's act seems not to have been a fully autonomous one. Most moral systems don't ascribe full responsibility (and therefore shame) unless the act is done deliberately and with full awareness. He may be responsible (and therefore shamed) for getting himself drunk in a vulnerable situation, but not necessarily for the act that followed.

As a married woman with a particular view of marriage (who happens to make a living teaching ethics), I personally would want to be told. I would be devastated, yes, but I would be more devastated to have my marriage supported by a false understanding. We'd work through it.

I can well imagine someone else might disagree.

If love of others is taken to be a supreme value is there any ethical

If love of others is taken to be a supreme value is there any ethical justification for a mature (50+) married man and woman to love each other when they are not married to each other (adultery) assuming children are not at risk (grown and gone or don't exist) and that great care is taken to keep the relationship secret and private (assume both live in distant countries/cultures)? Assume neither pregnancy nor disease are issues. Assume both people live in passionless but stable and friendly situations and recognize legitimate needs of all concerned to social and financial stability. Both divorcing would likely cause much pain and disruption to many. Terminating the relationship would deny both their last chance of expressing their mutual affection, of sharing their highest value. From at least Aristotle on, and for most religions and cultures, adultery is a no brainer - wrong without question. With aging populations in a modern context this question will become more common. If it is wrong, how...

I'm not sure why one would suppose that "love of others"---by which you seem, obviously, to mean romantic love---is a "supreme value", expressing which over-rides so much else. That said, yes, this kind of question is very real. And surely it's possible for someone to decide, in certain circumstances, that it is better to have an affair than to destroy a marriage, neither option being a very good one.

I think that the reason we hate is because we FIRST loved. An example would be

I think that the reason we hate is because we FIRST loved. An example would be that Americans hate terrorists because they love their country. A man hates the other man that sleeps with his wife, because he loves his wife. Does this idea have any relevance in modern philosophy, or has it already been covered? I'm not very versed with philosophical writings.

While we are thinking about the relationship between love and hate, what about love-love and hate-hate? Would X hate Y just because Y hates X? And so forth. Here's a version of something I cover in my introduction to philosophy course. Consider the psychological hypothesis that in order for a person to be able to love another person, he or she must already have been loved by someone else (earlier). For example, parents must love their children if their children are to be able to love other persons later. But how were the parents able to love their children? By our hypothesis, by being loved by someone else, say, their parents. But why were they able to love? We have a causal stream paradox. Perhaps at one point, way back, there was someone who was able to love in the absence of himself or herself being loved. This original unloved lover started things going. But then our hypothesis is false. Or perhaps God loved that person, who was not loved by any other person, in which case we can get the stream of love going without violating our hypothesis. But now we have to say that God, at least, can love without being loved. But if God loved that humanly-unloved person in order that this person would be able to love other persons and get the love-stream going, then there is no reason to assert our hypothesis. For any humanly-unloved person today will be able to love others as long as God loves him or her. Given the characterization of God as all-loving, we are all loved by God and hence will be able to love others in spite of the fact that we are not loved by other humans. Perhaps we should assert only that, ceteris paribus, a person is less likely to be able to love others if he or she has not been loved by others. This more reasonable claim might be true, but might also be a truism. Without a precise statement of the other conditions that are necessary and of the relationship between these and the loving-beloved chain, the psychology of love becomes a guessing game. (Is there a hate stream? Hate generates more hate....)