Flexible Morality

‪I was telling a woman friend in Paris some months back about a fellow American who’d been found out in a very brief affair by his wife, and who’d arrived home from a business trip to find the locks changed and divorce papers awaiting him.

‬My Parisian friend – who was born and raised in that city – asked me:

‬”Was he in love?”

“It was a fling, nothing more”.

“Had he ever been caught before?”

“Not at all – and he told me that it was the first time he’d ever been unfaithful during a very difficult eight year marriage”.

“Did he tell his wife all this?”

“Absolutely – and he begged her to forgive him”.

“And she still refused to do so?” she asked.

“Looks that way”.

“Seems a silly thing to do, exploding an entire marriage for a fling, Then again, maybe she’s seeing someone… and is just looking for a way out”.

For anyone who has the misguided idea that France is a country in love with the idea of romance, the fact is: there is an intelligent pragmatism that underlines general observations about the inherent messiness of human sexual behavior. Given that Descartes has had such a lasting influence on French philosophical thought – and that the heart of Cartesian thought is a belief in logic and rationality (‘Cogito ergo sum’) – it is not at all surprising that, when it comes to matters carnal, there is a belief in compartmentalization; that a private life has many rooms, and it is best to not let what happens in an attic, so to speak, influence the rest of the house. Yes, adultery can have the same explosive results in France that it has elsewhere. But there is also a unspoken understanding that life, quite simply, is a complex business, that to be human is to sometimes give in to temptation, that guilt needs to be reserved for major mortal sins, and that everyone has a ‘ un e chambre secrete’ and why cause unnecessary grief over small transgressions?

‬Of course, morality is a hugely individual business. One person’s minor mistake is another person’s hanging offense. But I do admire the French sensibility when it comes to acknowledging that life is an untidy enterprise – and that sex can make untidy fools of us all. As such, should we not be sage about what is emotionally treasonable and what is just sex?

‬Then again, many people feel that any infidelity is the end of trust, whereas others see it as proof of that old Alexandre Dumas quote (and I’m paraphrasing it here): “The chains of marriage are weighty and, as such, sometimes needs three or four people to carry them”.

‬To which I can only add one word: Discuss.