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Is Infidelity Harmful Enough to Undermine Freedom?

Many things are offensive, if not very offensive, but there are many that we allow for the sake of individual liberty’s continuation in Western society. Thus, a joke, a cartoon, a certain book, or painting might personally offend us, but that is not sufficient cause to warrant an arrest or censoring. Unless one is, say, being physically harmed, there is no reason to remove a person or entity merely because it is distasteful or “offensive” (there may be other reasons, such as defamation but these must be scrutinised very thoroughly, whereas physical offense is obvious). That would remove it for others who do not find it offensive, which limits them (and indeed you) because you would have removed the entire offensive entity from the world. Indeed, we are not allowed to even intervene to prevent people harming themselves, according to this principle, since it undermines individual liberty.

The Harm Principle, as Mill outlined it, provides one good justification for when it is permitted to limit the freedom of others.

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Thus, we can only interfere with the liberty of someone if he harms another. This means we can interfere if a husband is abusing his wife, a mother her children, and so on. What we cannot do is stop the husband smoking, the mother drinking and so on.

However, you’ll notice some problems immediately: the husband smoking reduces his lifespan and health, which can create problems for the entire family dealing with medical insurance, income and so on. This surely is a “harm to others”, namely his family. A woman getting drunk surely affects her ability to be a good parent, thus causing “harm to others”, namely her children.

This, however, doesn’t so much undermine Mill’s principle as reinforce it: notice the reason we condemn the smoker and drinker is exactly because of the harm it will cause to their respective loved ones (if you can call them that). It just tells us we need to look carefully at individual cases, as presented to us. Primarily, though, it does tell us that the law should not be involved in preventing these people smoking or drinking completely.

There are certain areas we are not allowed to smoke, such as hospitals for good reasons. Here the law is enforcing the principle, since there are sick people who would be harmed by the smoke. Similarly, we know that drinking severely diminishes one’s capacity to react effectively to sudden stimulus, which makes one a terrible, and therefore dangerous, driver.

In a previous post, we noted the relative inconsistency of laws around the world that do allow for drinking and smoking but deny assisted-suicide and euthanasia. You can destroy your lungs and liver but not take your own life. Suicide, despite it being perhaps the most individual affirming action anyone can perform, is itself not even sufficient to overcome one of absolute personal licence: like alcohol and smoking, your absence could have a severe effect on your loved ones. Especially in cases where one is the breadwinner, your suicide counts as disappearing, leaving everyone in the awful position of trying to live without the major basis of support. Therefore, within Mill’s limitations, this does give us reason to interfere – i.e.: stop – even on this most individual of actions.


But a case that stumps me is infidelity: cheating on one’s spouse or partner, with another. Here is a clear case of individuals harming others.

Mill’s principle is not sufficient to create laws upon, though it certainly is powerful as a criterion. As I pointed out last time, it just is the case that Mill’s principle is within our constitutions and law, whether he is expressly referenced or not. So, working within Mill’s principle, what is to be said about infidelity? Is it moral to prevent a person from having an affair, knowing it will harm his partner?

Why is it moral to intervene in cases where physical violations are occurring but not, say, relationship violations? Physical wounds can heal, but as we all know, emotional ones can be worse. And if it is the case that we’re morally allowed – or bound – to prevent significant harms to others, and if emotional “wounds” can be worse than physical, why aren’t we allowed to stop infidelity from occurring, even if they’re strangers?

The main reason it seems to me is that actual physical relations between a person and his mistress or lover are merely the end result of a deeper problem within the actual relationship with the wife or partner. Thus the problem isn’t the actual lovemaking but why it happened at all. When it comes to physical abuse, whether this is the end result or not, we can still intervene since whatever the causes, physical abuse can’t be the right solution.

But this also faces a problem: whatever the problem with a relationship, sexual infidelity with a lover also can’t be the right way to deal with one’s relationship problems. Yet, this undermines various good or “not bad” justifications for the infidelity, such as: the inability to leave a partner who is unsatisfying to greater or lesser extents, the destructiveness of the current relationship, and so on. The point is: we don’t know.

This is essential. Indeed, our limited knowledge of what other people enjoy or hate is precisely the basis for saying: “We do not know what is ‘good’ for you, since we can’t even say that for ourselves to any certain extent [by good, we don’t mean medically good but good in that it brings you joy, pleasure and/or fulfilment]. Therefore we will not legislate that you can or cannot do things to yourself, even if we suspect if may be bad (such as smoking). However, we can and will intervene to defend those who are not powerful enough to defend themselves or prevent harms to future nonconsenting people.” (I’m not sure how much of this I actually agree with, but it seems built into the Harm Principle.)

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Yet, as we noted, even here there is great difficulty, since almost all actions which we bring under the bracket of personal choice can be undermined by harms to third parties, like loved ones. So if someone is harmed by the infidelity, we apparently do have a duty under the Harm Principle to stop it.

I suspect, though, the reason why we ought not to be invading relationships is related to why we allow offensive material, as per the first paragraph. But I’m putting this out there for now, to obtain some insights from you, before I write about why infidelity should almost never be under the purview of law and societal restrictions.

Image Credit: Guaman Poma de Ayala/WikiPedia (source)


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