Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 4: Adultery - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 4: Adultery - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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A new sufferer is introduced, the injured husband, who receives a wound in his sensibility and affections, the most painful and incurable that human nature knows. In all other respects, adultery on the part of the man who solicits the chastity of a married woman, includes the crime of seduction, and is attended with the same mischief.
The infidelity of the woman is aggravated by cruelty to her children, who are generally involved in their parents’ shame, and always made unhappy by their quarrel.
If it be said that these consequences are chargeable not so much upon the crime, as the discovery, we answer, first, that the crime could not be discovered unless it were committed, and that the commission is never secure from discovery; and secondly, that if we excuse adulterous connexions, whenever they can hope to escape detection, which is the conclusion to which this argument conducts us, we leave the husband no other security for his wife’s chastity, than in her want of opportunity or temptation; which would probably either deter men from marrying, or render marriage a state of such jealousy and alarm to the husband, as must end in the slavery and confinement of the wife.
The vow, by which married persons mutually engage their fidelity, “is witnessed before God,” and accompanied with circumstances of solemnity and religion, which approach to the nature of an oath. The married offender therefore incurs a crime little short of perjury, and the seduction of a married woman is little less than subornation of perjury—and this guilt is independent of the discovery.
All behaviour which is designed, or which knowingly tends, to captivate the affection of a married woman, is a barbarous intrusion upon the peace and virtue of a family, though it fall short of adultery.
The usual and only apology for adultery is, the prior transgression of the other party. There are degrees, no doubt, in this, as in other crimes: and so far as the bad effects of adultery are anticipated by the conduct of the husband or wife who offends first, the guilt of the second offender is less. But this falls very far short of a justification; unless it could be shown that the obligation of the marriage-vow depends upon the condition of reciprocal fidelity; for which construction there appears no foundation, either in expediency, or in the terms of the promise, or in the design of the legislature which prescribed the marriage-rite. Moreover, the rule contended for by this plea has a manifest tendency to multiply the offence, but none to reclaim the offender.
The way of considering the offence of one party as a provocation to the other, and the other as only retaliating the injury by repeating the crime, is a childish trifling with words.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” was an interdict delivered by God himself. By the Jewish law, adultery was capital to both parties in the crime: “Even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and adulteress shall surely be put to death.”—Levit. xx. 10. Which passages prove, that the Divine Legislator placed a great difference between adultery and fornication. And with this agree the Christian Scriptures: for, in almost all the catalogues they have left us of crimes and criminals, they enumerate “fornication, adultery, whoremongers, adulterers,” (Matthew, xv. 19. 1 Cor. vi. 9. Gal. v. 9. Heb. viii. 4.) by which mention of both, they show that they did not consider them as the same: but that the crime of adultery was, in their apprehension, distinct from, and accumulated upon, that of fornication.
The history of the woman taken in adultery, recorded in the eighth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, has been thought by some to give countenance to that crime. As Christ told the woman, “Neither do I condemn thee,” we must believe, it is said, that he deemed her conduct either not criminal, or not a crime, however, of the heinous nature which we represent it to be. A more attentive examination of the case will, I think, convince us, that from it nothing can be concluded as to Christ’s opinion concerning adultery, either one way or the other. The transaction is thus related: “Early in the morning Jesus came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him: and he sat down and taught them. And the Scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery: and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act: now Moses, in the law, commanded that such should be stoned; but what sayest thou? This they said tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lift up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin amongst you, let him first cast a stone at her; and again he stooped down and wrote on the ground: and they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last; and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lift up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said unto him, No man, Lord. And he said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.”
“This they said tempting him, that they might have to accuse him”; to draw him, that is, into an exercise of judicial authority, that they might have to accuse him before the Roman governor, of usurping or intermeddling with the civil government. This was their design; and Christ’s behaviour throughout the whole affair proceeded from a knowledge of this design, and a determination to defeat it. He gives them at first a cold and sullen reception, well suited to the insidious intention with which they came: “He stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” “When they continued asking him,” when they teased him to speak, he dismissed them with a rebuke, which the impertinent malice of their errand, as well as the sacred character of many of them, deserved: “He that is without sin (that is, this sin) among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” This had its effect. Stung with the reproof, and disappointed of their aim, they stole away one by one, and left Jesus and the woman alone. And then follows the conversation, which is the part of the narrative most material to our present subject. “Jesus said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.” Now, when Christ asked the woman, “Hath no man condemned thee?” he certainly spoke, and was understood by the woman to speak, of a legal and judicial condemnation; otherwise, her answer, “No man, Lord,” was not true. In every other sense of condemnation, as blame, censure, reproof, private judgement, and the like, many had condemned her; all those indeed who brought her to Jesus. If then a judicial sentence was what Christ meant by condemning in the question, the common use of language requires us to suppose that he meant the same in his reply, “Neither do I condemn thee,” i.e. I pretend to no judicial character or authority over thee; it is no office or business of mine to pronounce or execute the sentence of the law.
When Christ adds, “Go, and sin no more,” he in effect tells her, that she had sinned already: but as to the degree or quality of the sin, or Christ’s opinion concerning it, nothing is declared, or can be inferred, either way.
Adultery, which was punished with death during the Usurpation, is now regarded by the law of England only as a civil injury; for which the imperfect satisfaction that money can afford, may be recovered by the husband.