user401947 user401947 - 4 months ago 25
C++ Question

C++: STL troubles with const class members

It is an open ended question.
Effective C++. Item 3. Use const whenever possible. Really?

I would like to make anything which doesn't change during the objects lifetime const. But const comes with it own troubles. If a class has any const member, the compiler generated assignment operator is disabled. Without an assignment operator a class won't work with STL. If you want to provide your own assignment operator, const_cast is required. That means more hustle and more room for error. How often you use const class members?

EDIT: As a rule, I strive for const correctness because I do a lot of multithreading. I rarely need to implemented copy control for my classes and never code delete (unless it is absolutely necessary). I feel that the current state of affairs with const contradicts my coding style. Const forces me to implement assignment operator even though I don't need one. Even without const_cast assignment is a hassle. You need to make sure that all const members compare equal and then manually copy all non-const member.

Code. Hope it will clarify what I mean. The class you see below won't work with STL. You need to implement an assignment for it, even though you don't need one.

class Multiply {
Multiply(double coef) : coef_(coef) {}
double operator()(double x) const {
return coef_*x;
const double coef_;


As AndreyT pointed out, under these circumstances assignment (mostly) doesn't make a lot of sense. The problem is that vector (for one example) is kind of an exception to that rule.

Logically, you copy an object into the vector, and sometime later you get back another copy of the original object. From a purely logical viewpoint, there's no assignment involved. The problem is that vector requires that the object be assignable anyway (actually, all C++ containers do). It's basically making an implementation detail (that somewhere in its code, it might assign the objects instead of copying them) part of the interface.

There is no simple cure for this. Even defining your own assignment operator and using const_cast doesn't really fix the problem. It's perfectly safe to use const_cast when you get a const pointer or reference to an object that you know isn't actually defined to be const. In this case, however, the variable itself is defined to be const -- attempting to cast away the constness and assign to it gives undefined behavior. In reality, it'll almost always work anyway (as long as it's not static const with an initializer that's known at compile time), but there's no guarantee of it.

C++ 11 and newer add a few new twists to this situation. In particular, objects no longer need to be assignable to be stored in a vector (or other collections). It's sufficient that they be movable. That doesn't help in this particular case (it's no easier to move a const object than it is to assign it) but does make life substantially easier in some other cases (i.e., there are certainly types that are movable but not assignable/copyable).

In this case, you could use a move rather than a copy by adding a level of indirection. If your create an "outer" and an "inner" object, with the const member in the inner object, and the outer object just containing a pointer to the inner:

struct outer { 
    struct inner {
        const double coeff;

    inner *i;

...then when we create an instance of outer, we define an inner object to hold the const data. When we need to do an assignment, we do a typical move assignment: copy the pointer from the old object to the new one, and (probably) set the pointer in the old object to a nullptr, so when it's destroyed, it won't try to destroy the inner object.

If you wanted to badly enough, you could use (sort of) the same technique in older versions of C++. You'd still use the outer/inner classes, but each assignment would allocate a whole new inner object, or you'd use something like a shared_ptr to let the outer instances share access to a single inner object, and clean it up when the last outer object is destroyed.