December 6, 2012

Decadence and Darwin

More Babies, Please by Russ Douthat

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.


Boy did that set off a storm.  What most bothered people was the term decadence.

Douthat responded to his critics, Don't Mention the Decadence 

Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had? And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?
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Is replacement-level fertility really so much to ask, morally speaking, of people graced with wealth and entertainments and diversions beyond the dreams of any previous generation? If conspicuous consumption is morally dubious when it substitutes for sacrifices on behalf of strangers, as most good progressives seem to think, why isn’t it morally dubious when it substitutes for the more intimate form of sacrifice that made all of our lives possible in the first place?
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Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow? Is the feminist revolution such a fragile thing that it requires outright population decline to fulfill its goals, and is female advancement really incompatible with the goal of a modestly above-replacement birthrate?
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And what Yglesias calls nuttiness still looks like moral common sense to me — a view of intergenerational obligation that human flourishing depends on, and whose disappearance threatens to sacrifice essential goods and relationships on the altar of more transient forms of satisfaction.

Mollie Hemingway ways in Admit It: We're a Decadent People

How denigrating the practice of childrearing is viewed as a feminist triumph is beyond me.

But why can't we admit that our lack of childbearing is due to luxurious self-indulgence? Seems to me that even for those who support our current self-centered way of life, this is viewed as a feature rather than a bug of our birth control culture. Why do we have to pretend otherwise?

Megan McArdle has this to say about Our Demographic Decline

Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population.  Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive.  Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable. 

In a less decadent age, Darwin foreswore the self-indulgence we've come to take for granted.  The private life of Charles Darwin

In the notes – made in April and July 1938 when he was 29 years old – Darwin weighs the options, listing the positive and negative points for matrimony with a pragmatic and analytical detachment that doubtless served him well in his scientific inquiries. When choosing a soulmate though, Darwin's approach comes across as – how can I put it – a little less than romantic.

On the plus side of the ledger he cites "Children (if it Please God)" and companionship, "[an] object to be beloved and played with – better than a dog anyhow". He also approves of the health-giving benefits of the "charms of music & female chit-chat".

But he then turns to the many freedoms he worries he will miss out on – "Conversation of clever men at clubs"; "cannot read in the evenings"; "less money for books". There will also be the anxiety and responsibility of fatherhood, "fatness and idleness" and above all, "loss of time"……"How should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife.  Eheu!! I never should know French, – or see the Continent – or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales – poor slave."

In the end, he decided he would be happier married.

"It is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all.  No, no won't do – Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London."

He later married and described his wedding day as "the day of days" 
Posted by Jill Fallon at December 6, 2012 3:00 PM | Permalink