Though monogamous marriage may be, on average, the best way to rear children, a lifetime of monogamous fidelity isn’t natural in our species. And extramarital affairs have a way of leading, one way or another, to the dissolution of marriages — not unfailingly, by any means, but with nontrivial frequency. And even when an affair doesn’t end a marriage, it can permanently change the marriage — and child-rearing environment — for the worse.
So we’re stuck with this unfortunate irony: the institution that seems to be, on average, the least bad means of rearing children is an institution that doesn’t naturally sustain itself in the absence of moral sanction — positive sanction for fidelity, negative sanction for infidelity. And negative sanction often involves sounding judgmental — something that, in addition to incurring the wrath of a columnist’s readers, raises genuinely thorny intellectual problems.
These problems are handily summarized via two aphorisms: 1) Let he who is without sin cast the first stone; 2) There but for the grace of God go I.
The first of these is the problem of hypocrisy. Given how many people have either cheated on their spouse or done something comparably serious, how can we dish out moral sanction — blame people for their transgressions — without being a society of hypocrites? (Maybe we can’t; as various people have argued, and as I suggested in an earlier column, maybe hypocrisy is a natural ingredient of an effective moral system.)
The second problem is the problem of moral imagination. If you can imagine yourself in Tiger’s shoes, you can see that he is exposed to a level of temptation most of us will never know. I for one don’t claim that I could withstand it.
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