What We Do In Private

By Dr. Manuel Davenport, Texas A&M University

For reasons illustrated most recently in the cases of Lt. Flynn and Gen. Ralston, I have found it necessary in recent semesters to consider in my military ethics classes the issue of adultery in the armed forces. In discussions with my students the general reaction, whether from cadets or civilians, has been: What members of the armed forces do in private is their own business! In discussing with ;them this reaction, I have discovered that they are making two separable but related assumptions: One, society has no right to interfere with or control the private behavior of consenting adults, and, two, because society has no such right, then the armed forces has no such right in regard to its members.

The notion that consenting adults should be free to do whatever they agree to do in private is commonly attributed to John Stuart Mill. In his justly famous work, On Liberty, Mill supposedly established the principle that adults should be allowed to determine their own behavior as long as such behavior does not overtly harm others. Thus, it seems to follow that the private behavior of consenting adults, because it cannot overtly harm others, must be protected from social control. If the colonel and his best friend’s wife want to carry on a sexual affair, and they keep it private, military authorities have no right to question or interfere.

I find it interesting that Mill himself was deeply in love with a married woman, but never engaged in sex with her until after her husband died--of natural causes-- and he and the lady were married.(1) Why, one must wonder, if Mill believed that adultery carried on in private between consenting adults was not wrong, did he wait twenty years so that his union with his love, Harriet Taylor, would be non-adulterous?

It is true that Mill argued in On Liberty that:

But Mill also made it clear that this individual right to freedom of action must be limited to mature, rational and civilized human beings. In his words:

Mill so restricted the exercise of freedom of action because such freedom was not for him an end in itself but only a means to individual self-realization (4), and, thus, should be granted only to those who have “the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion.”(5) What Mill meant by “self-realization” and “improvement” was the development of the highest human capacities: rationality, sociability and aesthetic taste.(6) Children, idiots, and barbarians, therefore, cannot be allowed individual freedom of action because they would not use it to become properly self-realized, but would use it to satisfy immature, irrational and anti-social impulses.

So what we find is that Mill believed rational, mature and civilized individuals must be allowed freedom of action limited only by the right of other individuals to the same freedom because such individuals must seek self-realization in unique ways.(7) Other persons, even if rational, mature and civilized, do not know as well as I do, if I am rational, mature and civilized, what is my best path to self-realization. But those who are irrational, immature or uncivilized cannot be allowed such freedom because they are neither seeking nor able to seek true self-realization.

Another way to put Mill’s point is to indicate that for him only self-realization that contributes to the highest social good should be encouraged. His ethical standard “is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”(8) Proper self-realization, he believed, was the most efficient and productive means for achieving the general happiness quite simply because those who are rational, who seek solidarity with others and who exercise good taste will not place personal happiness above the good of all but will, if necessary, sacrifice personal happiness for the happiness of others.(9)

Following Mill, then, what must be asked in regard to adultery is whether engaging in it will contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Even if both parties are consenting adults and the affair can be kept private, it must be asked whether such conduct would impair self-realization and, thus, the ability to promote the general good. Mill and Harriet Taylor believed that engaging in adultery would have disrupted lives of her three children and her husband, John. Equally important, they did not want to destroy Mill’s example and influence as a moral philosopher. (10) Even if they could have conducted a secret affair, they believed that the hypocrisy and deceit involved would have had a negative influence on their own mutual self-realization. Mill, we see quite clearly, did not consider his liberty principle to be absolute and did not use it to defend a “right” of consenting adults to do whatever they agree to do in private.

To defend such a right one must ignore what Mill considered to be fundamental, the interdependence of self-realization and the general welfare. For Mill, a good society requires individuals who are properly self-realized and in order for individuals to be properly realized a good society is required.(11) Society, therefore, may justly require individuals “to observe a certain line of conduct toward the rest,” and the mature and rational individual may justly demand “perfect freedom, both legal and social” in regard to purely self-regarding actions.(12)

My students,when they claim that consenting adults can do what they please as long as they do it in private, differ from Mill, then, in two respects: They believe that self-realization is an end in itself, and they believe that they can determine whether the private pursuit of self-realization impairs their ability to or interest in working for the good of society.

The first of these assumptions is clearly a form of egoism, but in order to be joined with the second assumption it must be an enlightened form of egoism. The implicit admission that certain pursuits of self-realization should remain private indicates an awareness that some public actions may be justly subject to social control. Thus, as rational egoists, my students do respect the wishes of others at least to the extent that others have the power to restrict their self-realization. But my students also believe that society has no right to restrict or control private behavior if what is done in private does not harm society. Clearly, they believe that there is a broad range of private behavior, including adultery, that if done in private, they can prevent from harming others and should not be subject to social control.

Here again my students accept an obligation to be concerned about the good of society inasmuch as they admit the possibility that some private behavior can harm others and agree that such behavior should be restricted. They would agree, for example, that a physician who uses crack cocaine in private may impair thereby his ability to practice medicine, and should not be allowed to do so. But, so my students would argue, a military officer who engages in adultery and does so in private with a partner who is a consenting adult can do so without impairing her ability to serve her country, and, therefore, the armed forces should not proscribe such behavior.

My students would agree, to repeat for emphasis, that as professionals military officers should not be allowed to engage in any private behavior that would diminish acceptable job performance, and here they agree with a commonly accepted principle of professional ethics.(13) What they contend is that adultery is not this kind of private behavior. By so contending, however, they are demanding the right to determine on their own what kind of behavior will or will not impair their capacity to perform their military duties. To put the matter bluntly, they are claiming that it is the individual rather than the institution that has the right to determine what kind of behavior is relevant to acceptable job performance. This claim, of course, is consistent with their enlightened egoism, and if they were to alter their position by conceding that it is the institution rather than the individual that should make this determination, they would have to seriously modify, if not abandon altogether, their basic egoistic ethical position.

At this point, it might seem that the issue is: Should the determination of what kind of private behavior on the part of a professional is relevant to acceptable job performance be made by the individual professional or by the profession as an institution? But this is not the issue because for many professionals individual standards do not differ from institutional standards, and ultimately all such determinations, if truly ethical, must be made by the individual professional. The real issue is: Should the determination of what kind of private behavior is relevant to acceptable job performance be made by enlightened egoists?

An enlightened egoist, as stated earlier, views self-realization as an end-in-itself, and will allow others to restrict pursuit of this end only to the extent necessary to make possible its continued pursuit. Thus, if we allow enlightened egoists to determine what kind of private behavior is relevant to acceptable job performance, they will argue that unless their private behavior directly and obviously has an adverse effect upon their work, it is not relevant. If one is a pilot, they will argue, and one’s ability to fly a plane remains the same after engaging in adultery as before, then adultery is not relevant. They will acknowledge that if their flying skills suffer, their ability to practice such skills should be curtailed and this will result eventually in a loss of self-realization, but if they contribute no less to society because they privately engage in adultery, why should they suffer a loss of self-realization?

This argument by presupposing that the individual can control the effects of private behavior upon public performance ignores the possible accumulative impact of private behavior upon public performance. Consider, for example, a teacher who drinks heavily each evening, but never comes to class intoxicated and who is judged by his peers and students to be an excellent teacher. As he continues his private drinking there will be a gradual deterioration in his teaching skills, which will be noticed first by his students, next by his peers, and finally, if at all, by himself. In such a situation the teacher himself is hardly qualified to determine whether his private behavior impairs his job performance. In fact, it is quite possible that his egoistic self-realization is being served by his false belief that he can be a heavy drinker and a great teacher. The private practice of adultery will have similar accumulative effects. To keep the affair secret one must engage in deceit and subtrefuge, and do so consistently. To keep from getting caught in one’s “tangled web” requires intense and stressful concentration. Thus, the longer the affair lasts, the more it will drain away energy and poise required for successful job performance, and, again, the person whose ego is served by believing he is able to juggle an affair and a job is hardly qualified to judge the effect of this juggling upon his job performance.

Finally, we should not allow enlightened egoists to determine whether private behavior is relevant to job performance because enlightened egoism is incompatible with self-realization. Enlightened egoists who claim the right to determine whether their private behavior should be subject to social control argue that unless they have this right they will be deprived of self-realization. But they are mistaken because enlightened egoism in actuality limits the capacity of the self to achieve realization.

As I have argued elsewhere (14), the basic natural tendency of the self is to maintain its ability to integrate stimuli from both the extrernal environment and internal physical needs. Thus, the self as it seeks to maintain a constant form, or what may be called its “integrity,” tends to reject inputs contrary to that form and accept those that are compatible with it. The normal self values its integrity more than the mere satisfaction of physical needs or mere adjustment to the external world.

If I value integrity more than the satisfaction of physical needs, I may when quite hungry forego eating in order to help a friend because I promised to do so. I may, on the other hand, if I value short-term satisfaction more than integrity, “sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.” If I value integrity more than adjustment to the external world, I may risk my job in order to defend a persecuted colleague. Or, if I value getting along more than integrity, I may participate in the persecution of my colleague.

In terms of this view of the self, which is consistent with the views of Aristotle or Mill, it would be irrational and self-defeating to attempt to achieve self-realization by any means that would threaten or destroy the integrity of the self which is necessary for continued self-realization. The enlightened egoist who seeks self-realization by means of deceiving himself and others, has compromised his integrity and in time may destroy it altogether. Self-realization, for the enlightened egoist, is really only self-indulgence, and a consistent pursuit of self-indulgence deadens the desire for integrity and makes it progressively easier to engage in self-deception. As continued self-deception becomes necessary as a means to self-indulgence, the possibility of future self-realization may be lost and certainly the ability to serve others as a professional military officer will be severely impaired. A person whose continued existence depends upon deceiving himself and others cannot be trusted to execute assigned duties or to provide truthful reports which are subjectively unpleasant or harmful. Such a person, as Mill realized, cannot be respected as a moral philosopher, and such a person, as I try to convince my students, cannot be a military professional worthy of respect.(15)

Manuel M. Davenport Texas A&M University


1. Michael St. John Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (New York: Capricorn Books, 1970), pp. 318-321, 338-345.

2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1956), p. 13.

3. Ibid., pp, 13-14.

4. Ibid., pp. 40-42.

5. ibid., p. 14.

6. Mill, Utilitarianism (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957), pp. 11-15.

7. Mill, On Liberty, pp. 70-77.

8. Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 12.

9. Ibid., p. 17.

10. Packe, op. cit. pp. 317-320.

11. Mill, On Liberty, pp. 140-141.

12. Ibid., p. 92.

13. Cf. George G. Brenkert, “Privacy, Polygraphs, and Work,” Business & Professional Ethics Journal (Fall 1981), pp. 19-35.

14. Manuel M. Davenport, “Self-Determination and the Conflict Between Naturalism and Non-Naturalism,” The Journal of Philosophy Vol. LVI, No. 15(July 16, 1959), pp. 663-644.

15. In fairness to my students I should mention a common rejoinder: In our society today adultery is so common and open that there is really no need to keep it private; only the old-fashioned views of the military establishment force its members to engage in deceit. My rejoinder is: The reason adultery requires deceit is that those who practice it recognize that by making it public they could harm their marriage partners, their children, and others they care about. If, and when, adultery practiced openly does not harm these other persons, but contributes to their well-being, then I would be willing to consider it as a possible means of proper self-realization.