If there's a Platonic ideal of New York Times Sunday Styles articles, Teddy Wayne's "No Kids for Me, Thanks" from this past weekend might well be it. It has everything: snappy writing, upper-middle-class Brooklynite anxieties treated as a window onto "a nationwide demographic shift," literary celebrities, thoughtful thumb-sucking about How We Live Now.
The piece was provoked by the publication of a new anthology of essays, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It's a great title that appropriates several of the most potent criticisms that are regularly lobbed at people who choose to remain "child-free," as some of these folks prefer to describe themselves.
As Wayne notes early on in the article, the number of childless women between the ages of 40 and 44 doubled between 1976 and 2006, when the figure peaked at over 20 percent. Today the number is closer to 15 percent, but that's still historically high.
So what's going on? Are we living through a cultural high-water mark for selfishness, shallowness, and self-absorption?
The answer: sort of.
Yes, the behavior described with those epithets is real and widespread. But it doesn't deserve to be denigrated quite so simply and easily.
What talk of selfishness and self-absorption really points to is the poverty of our moral concepts. As good children of Immanuel Kant, we find it difficult to think about morality and ethics in broader terms than a binary contrast between the selfless devotion to universal principle (good) and the selfish satisfaction of subjective desires (bad). No wonder that many of the people who think of themselves as selflessly devoting their lives to raising children look out at a sea of childless couples and singles in contemporary America and conclude that they're paragons of selfishness.
Ethical reasoning in the ancient world (at least among philosophers) was much richer. Aristotle encapsulated the classical view in the famous opening line of the Nicomachean Ethics, which boldly asserted that every art, inquiry, action, and pursuit "aims at some good." The implication is quite stunning to a mind reared on Kantian categories, maintaining that a person who engages in great acts of evil, no less than someone who does great moral deeds, is pursuing some notion of the good. (It also implies, pace Kant, that the "selfish" concern with one's own good is inexorably wrapped up with everything human beings do.)
The soldier who courageously throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades acts as he does, for example, because he thinks noble sacrifice is good — so good that it outweighs the great good of being alive. But something similar can be said of the thief who steals vast sums of treasure; he acts as he does because he believes possessing money or being rich is good — so good that it outweighs the good of obeying the law against stealing. This is why the only truly just punishment for misdeeds, in the ancient view, is education — because the criminal made a mistake about what is truly good and must be taught the error of his ways.
This classically Greek way of conceiving of morality produced a high culture in which people actively debated the highest good, often forming elaborate schools of thought and ways of living around one answer or another. What is the best way of life for a human being? Is it security and safety? Or military courage, honor, and glory? Or noble devotion to universal ideals? Or love? Or the pursuit of philosophic wisdom? And so on.
So what good do today's childless couples aim at? I'd say something like pleasure — material rewards along with the self-satisfaction that follows from achieving high social status through career advancement. They want to work hard and play hard, enjoying the fruits of their labor without the constraints, sacrifices, and trade-offs that come from raising kids. Children might be a good, but they're a good that would take away from what they consider to be the highest good, which is the enjoyment of pleasure. So they forgo having them.
They're hedonists, in other words.
In our culture, with its post-Christian moral residue, "hedonism" sounds vaguely shameful. The term calls to mind an image of people sitting around (metaphorically and perhaps literally) masturbating all day long. But in the ancient world, hedonism was one of the great answers to the all-important question of how to live. Epicurus founded a sect of philosophical hedonism that perpetuated itself for hundreds of years in Greece and Rome, with Lucretius' classic poem On the Nature of Things elaborating its comprehensive vision of life. Its adherents devoted themselves to pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, but they did so moderately, so that the pleasures would endure and the desire for them would not become an independent source of discomfort.
So, are the childless right? Is pleasure the highest good?
The case for it is obvious — what's not to like?
The case against it, on the other hand, is weaker than a definitive refutation based on an air-tight logical argument. It's based on a psychological claim or observation about human longings.
Anti-hedonists from Plato on have suggested that most people who devote themselves to pleasure-seeking are living a lie. Either they deny their own truest longing — in Plato's case, for eternity — or they deny how austere (and spiritually unfulfilling) a life devoted to pleasure really is. If someone truly feels no sign of dissatisfaction at the prospect of pursuing one pleasure after another until both the desires and their satisfaction simply wink out of existence at the moment of death, then such a person might be a consistent hedonist, might really consider pleasure the highest good. But how many people truly, honestly feel that way? How many will truly, honestly experience no flood of regrets when faced with the prospect of annihilation?
Plato's prediction? Not many.
It's true: The immortality afforded by procreation is an ersatz immortality. We won't really be around to go on living through our children's lives, and the lives of their children. But we can imagine those lives, and the ones following from them down through the ages, while we are alive, and know that something intangible about us will live on through them. Just as something equally intangible promises to live on from someone who devotes his life to the goods of honor or glory, or sacrifice for a noble cause.
There is no such comfort for the hedonist.
So here's my message for the child-free among us: If you're certain that your pursuit of pleasure is all you want from life, then good luck and have fun!
But are you really certain?