Global Ethics Corner: Should Adultery be Illegal for Military Personnel?

November 19, 2012

The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus was as sudden as it was alarming. News that the retired U.S. General had engaged in an extramarital affair has left the intelligence community scrambling for a competent replacement. But it’s also sparked some soul-searching within military circles, as many ponder the ethical implications of Petraeus’s downfall. 

Although some would argue that Petraeus’s affair made him vulnerable to blackmail, at present there’s no indication that his conduct broke any laws. But if Petraeus were still in the military, it would be a different story. That’s because adultery is illegal under military lawpunishable by reprimand, dismissal, and even prison.

The illegality of adultery offers just one example of how military personnel are held to a higher ethical standard than civilians. But is it a fair standard to set? Should adultery be illegal for military personnel? 

Many members of the military say it should be. They believe adultery represents a threat to military discipline. It can endanger troop morale and compromise the public’s faith in the military.

Others believe that such notions are outdated. After all, since military professionals now do multiple tours of duty away from their spouses, cases of adultery are only likely to rise. What’s more, when it comes to personal relations, military professionals are just as prone to mistakes as their civilian counterparts. A "military apart" is a noble phrase, but when it comes to adultery, is it fair to expect a higher standard? Is it realistic?

As the U.S. reflects on the ethical standards of its military, what do you think? Should military professionals be held to a stricter moral code than civilians? And should a prohibition against adultery be part of that code?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Mark Thompson, "An Army Apart: The Widening Military-Civilian Gap," Time, November 10, 2011

Ian Fisher, "Army's Adultery Rule Is Don't Get Caught," The New York Times, May 17, 1998

Mark Memmott, "Petraeus Affair Widens: Who's Who & What's What? Here's A Guide," NPR, November 13, 2012

Thom Shanker, "Concern Grows Over Top Military Officers’ Ethics," The New York Times, November 12, 2012

Photo credits in order of appearance:
Hector Alejandro
Bill Rhodes
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Thomas Hawk
Jennuine Captures
Benjamin Faske / U.S. Army
Victoria Pickering
Sharla Lewis / U.S. Army
Clifford Horn
Elizabeth Alexander/U.S. Army

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