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Extinction: Not a pressing concern for humanity at this time

[ 99 ] December 5, 2012 |

Ross Douthat is doubling down on the notion that intentionally choosing to have less children constitutes “decadence”:

But the modern path has many possible endpoints, and it seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up — slightly above replacement level, slightly below, or in the depths plumbed by countries like Japan — must represent the best of all possible worlds.

After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? 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?

If I’m reading this correctly, Douthat is using the specter of the extinction of the human race in order to generate a moral imperative to have more children. I see little harm in conceding the point: were the human race facing imminent extinction, the moral calculus might plausibly look a bit different.

Fortunately, we’re in no such situation. Here’s a global population growth chart, showing three projections for population growth, high, medium and low, generated by the UN two years ago. In the high growth rate scenario, the population in 2100 is 16 billion and growing. In the middling scenario, the global population is leveling off at around 10 billion. In the low scenario, the global population will continue to grow to over 8 billion until around 2050, when it will level off and begin a decline, remaining above 6 billion in 2100. (My own read of the demographic projections is the most likely scenario lies between the low and middle projections; leveling off somewhere north of 8 billion but south of 10, with a more gentle decline than the low suggestion projects).

So, it’s safe to say that Douthat can retire his fears of decadence-induced extinction of the human race. He further argues that while in theory we could deal with the challenge of population decline in wealthy societies through greater immigration, as “humanists” we should seek to maintain those populations through children instead, because we’re so rich that we can provide better childhoods than other people.

This is spectacularly unconvincing. A broad commitment to something we might plausibly call humanism might very easily lead to the opposite conclusion: that providing an opportunity to migrate to a wealthy society for people suffering considerable oppression or mired in hopeless poverty scores at least as high on the humanism scale as having a not especially wanted additional child. I would also submit that a humanist commitment to the well-being of future generations is, first and foremost, concerned with the quality of life of those future people, rather than quantity in which those people exist. (Is Douthat a closet Parfitian?) Given our rather pathetic lack of progress to date to scale human consumption to a level that doesn’t dramatically alter the earth’s climate, a somewhat lower population at some point in the future might be worth pursuing as a necessary but not sufficient condition of ecological stability, despite the policy challenges it presents.

I’m in agreement with Douthat that a sense of obligation toward future generations is an important moral value, and a general duty to contribute to the care, cultivation, protection and education of children is a central way in which the duties associated with that value are discharged. From there, however, it does not follow that people should feel a moral obligation to have children when they are uncertain or unenthusiastic about doing so. It’s a duty that can be discharged in a variety of ways, including the support of the sort of family-friendly public policies Douthat mentions in his original column, as well as contributing of the care and support of children and parents in one’s extended family, community, and social circle. There’s no reason to conclude, with Douthat, that such an obligation can only be discharged through having (more) children of one’s own.


Comments (99)

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  1. Brandon says:

    Even before reading your following paragraph, I thought Douthat’s claim that the humanist moral would be “wealthy people should have more children” to be the exact opposite of what I’d conclude.

  2. Dollared says:

    Is there a genre of “Dystopian Catholic Science Fiction?” Or is this the only example?

  3. Erik Loomis says:

    I feel that Douthat is really talking about race suicide while being afraid to use the words. After all, the real issue for him is white people making this choice and what that means to the future of the nation.

    Theodore Roosevelt would recognize and approve of these arguments.

    • STH says:

      Yep. He’s not writing for the National Review here, so he has to tone down the usual rhetoric.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

      Right this is what I was thinking. He really means white babies. It stems from the whole decline in Europe thing. Also it is a perfectly predictable and timely reaction to the re-election of a black president despite the white-male vote.

    • bradP says:

      Yeah, you can be pretty sure he is not as concerned with the existence of the human race as he is with the composition of the human race.

      • Ranylt says:

        Yup. I chose not to have kids. At 42, I’ve had to deal with my share of disapproval over the years, for that “selfish” choice. The discussion always comes down to “white babies”–or would, if these folk took my bait once I counter with the “6 billion and counting” fact. It’s the best way of stopping that judgmental interference cold, at least in my neck of the woods.

        • DrDick says:

          Indeed. With finite, and rapidly diminishing, resources and an expanding world population, having fewer children is the more moral and responsible choice. For American workers, it is also a more immediate and direct net gain, as it drives down competition and raises their value. For the record, I quit after one son almost 40 years ago.

      • Buzz Windrip says:

        This was my reaction. Not believing in science makes cloning fat old white guys problematic. Righties need to get serious about some “legitimate” humpity-bumpity. Banging Senate pages ain’t gonna get it done.

    • cpinva says:

      so when are the douthats going to announce that they’re expecting? they aren’t? well, that seems might selfish of them. geez, i’d the mrs. would be being pumped full of fertility drugs and extra eggs, to increase the possibility of a multiple birth event, if they really cared.

      • commie atheist says:

        According to TBogg, they have one child after 5 years of marriage:

        Since Ross is more Catholic than the Pope, and twice as sanctimonious, we’ll have to assume that birth control has not been put in play in the Douthat Sexy Boudoir Of Many Positions, Both Of Them Missionary, meaning that Ross Douthat is the Motherfucking Rhythm-method Master but now it is time for him to skip a beat [insert your own joke here] for America.

        So hop on it, Ross Douthat! Just explain to your wife that the math and the internet demands it.

      • LCForevah says:

        Douchehat’s hypocrisy is tremendous in its scope. It doesn’t occur to him that this is an article he cannot write without children of his own to show. How long have they been married, two, three years? There should be two or three children at least by now.

        Unless there are fertility problems he hasn’t talked about yet, they are practicing birth control-very uncatholic,according to the hierarchy.

        I find his need to tell others how to be completely perverted. RCC accounts for 22% of the American population and they should all learn how to keep their religion out of the public sphere–that’s Douchey and the bishops.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      Not quite that simple. Just as he can read The Bible without embracing biblical genocide, he’s managed to assimilate white-supremacist arguments without the white supremacism. He is the truest apologist; a sorry excuse for a human.

    • Josh G. says:

      That’s really the only way to read this. Douthat’s arguments are complete non sequiturs unless you realize that when he talks about women not having enough children, he’s really talking about white women not having enough white children.

    • ema says:

      It’s not race, it’s, you know, level of development (emphasis mine):

      [I]t seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up … must represent the best of all possible worlds.

    • DrDick says:

      That was my immediate take as well.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I’m surprised that anyone is interpreting his statements any other way.

  4. Joseph Slater says:

    Good piece, but mid-last paragraph, shouldn’t that be, “From there, however, it does NOT follow. . . .”?

  5. Murc says:

    I will take Douthat’s concerns about our societal obligations to have children seriously when he begins to subscribe to a political philosophy and a political party that recognizes society has obligations to it’s citizens and not just the other way around.

    Until then, you know that hole, the one he puts pie in? He can shut it.

  6. somethingblue says:

    If producing offspring is such a big obligation, it seems to me that the upper management of Douthat’s religion might start chipping in a bit more. Instead of devoting themselves to “other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures …”

  7. bradP says:

    If I’m reading this correctly, Douthat is using the specter of the extinction of the human race in order to generate a moral imperative to have more children. I see little harm in conceding the point: were the human race facing imminent extinction, the moral calculus might plausibly look a bit different.

    If the human race faces imminent extinction, it does alter the moral calculus: we would no longer be morally obligated to consider future generations.

    His argument is so, so, SO stupid:

    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

    I’m obligated to stop at stop signs, so I had better get to driving!

  8. Keaaukane says:

    Does Douthat have any kids? His wiki page just says he’s married. Are these columns just love notes to his wife, begging to get laid/ and or have children?

  9. Bitter Scribe says:

    If Douthat is so solicitous of future generations, he could start by telling his political allies to stop obstructing measures that would preserve the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the climate they have to live in.

  10. David W. says:

    I’m reminded of the anti-abortion billboards I see in the upper midwest, and how for thirty years I have yet to find one featuring a cute baby that isn’t white. So it’s clear to me that the “somebody” Douthat is talking about is white, and probably needs dairy products.

  11. MosesZD says:

    In case it’s not obvious, but this isn’t about what it purports to be about. Coming from the white-privilege, closet-racist background I do, I damn well understand that his little rants are about the decline of WHITE people. Douhat, as does every other closet white supremacist, knows that non-white ethnic groups in much of the world are still growing at quite the pace, but that the ethnic-European first-world groups are in decline.

    This also drives much of the anti-abortion movement. Sure, there are some true believers.

    But if you tape the protesters and cross-reference them with the ethnicity of the clients coming in… There’s a tremendous, by orders of magnitude, difference when a white girl and a black girl come into the clinic.

    The white girl will get the full-court press. The black girl will only get the ‘true believers’ as it were while the closet racists will ‘take a coffee break’ or whatever they do to hide the racist BS.

    Of course, there is always denial of this. However, it is well understood. As the former DHS analyst Daryl Johnson put it (when discussing domestic terrorism):

    DARYL JOHNSON: There’s definitely links between white supremacists and the anti-abortion issue. That is one of the causes that they rally around and use as a recruitment tool to bring people into the movement. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s strictly neo-Nazi. It could be also the Christian Identity movement, it could be skinheads, it could the Ku Klux Klan.

    It’s there. It’s real. It’s not a joke. I’ve seen it first hand.

  12. Karate Bearfighter says:

    Look, you can use your fancy UN “projections” and “estimates” if you want; Ross Douthat believes what he sees with his own two eyes on his own television set. The whiteboard said 41,435 after New Caprica, and the trend was clearly downwards. Get procreating, people!

  13. The Bobs says:

    Perhaps Douthat should think about resource depletion and the second law of thermodynamics.

    Nature beat the second law, we’re not even trying.

  14. mpowell says:

    Well, he’s a total jackass, but that’s nothing new. He hardly adds anything in this 2nd article. I want to make a point that I didn’t see mentioned much the first time around. Douthat makes the implicit claim that people are lazy (decadent) and this is why they’ve stopped having kids. Of course, many people have pointed out that the decline in birth rate is related to women gaining control over their own fertility. I wanted to add to this that the people who used to decide how many kids to have, namely men, are also the ones who were previously less impacted by it. There is absolutely nothing lazy about the current generation. It’s just that previous generations didn’t do as much work taking care of their kids (which was most certainly worse for the kids development) and the people making the decisions about how many kids were not impacted by it. Because men don’t get pregnant and certainly didn’t used to be responsible for childrearing!

    Douthat’s version of a non-decadent society is where privileged men get to force women to work and suffer for the benefit of the society. Fucking awesome.

  15. Random says:

    Of course, Douhat believes that its your obligation to have lots of children because he believes God commanded it. It really is that simple. Any other rationale that he gives in defense of this policy prescription was derived after the fact. His entire career is in fact motivated by his belief that it is his personal mission from God to promote those commandments. As a result, every single one of his columns is the same strained, post-fact rationalization, every single time.

    • greylocks says:

      My interpretation also. He’s a conservative Catholic, and this is right-wing Catholic doctrine wrapped up in an incoherent rationale.

      Which is typical wingnut M.O. — instead of having the stones to just say what you really think, pretend to have some greater good in mind and hope the rest of are stupid enough to not see through it.

    • sharculese says:

      I’m not sure this is true. Douthat is an adult convert. It’s more likely, at least to me, that he chose this worldview because it reflected things that he already wanted to believe, and “God said it” is just the rationale.

  16. Jameson Quinn says:

    I personally regard my decision NOT to have a second child as one of the most moral ones of my life, and clearly the greatest sacrifice I have made in a life not without sacrifices (vegetarian, exiled from homeland, earning far less than I could have been).

  17. Jameson Quinn says:

    Separately: there are certainly reasons to consider extinction threats to be “pressing”. Even a 0.1% threat is equivalent to millions dead. And while I do not believe that runaway climate change, grey goo, or the AI apocalypse pose threats above 5%, there are enough smart people who put these risks over 0.1% that I’m not willing to discount them entirely. So: “Voluntary extinction: not a pressing concern” would be more accurate.

  18. AuRevoirGopher says:

    Does all this mean that nuns are decadent?

  19. AcademicLurker says:

    “Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

    I couldn’t help thinking of this quote when reading Douthat’s piece.

  20. herr doktor bimler says:

    if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods

    “Human Goods” sounds like a slogan for a butcher’s window display. “A Modest Proposal” comes to mind.

  21. […] Douthat’s complaint that American women aren’t having enough babies. Douthat’s response to the flak he took: “if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as […]

  22. MikeN says:

    On the Catholic dystopia thing, “The Eleventh Commandment”, a 1962 sf novel by Lester del Rey.

    A secret agent from a human colony on Mars is sent down to find out why the Catholic Church, which now rules the entire Earth, is insisting everyone continues to breed without control, even though the planet is horribly overcrowded and everyone lives in extreme poverty.

    The kicker is that it turns out there was an atomic war, and the Church wisely/secretly insists on this choice to ensure humanity isn’t swamped by dangerous mutations.

  23. allan says:

    Who is this Ross Douchebag? How many kids does he have anyway? Oh, he doesn’t have any kids.

  24. […] (similar to a dope-slap, but administered with sacred sorrow) to Katha Pollitt (among the many, many, others), and be glad that others have waded through his muck so that I don’t have […]

  25. […] Guns and Money is properly critical (1, 2) of Ross Douthat’s argument that the lakc of high fertility rates indicates decadence; […]

  26. Krissy says:

    Humanity is facing an imminent extinction because of climate change but with more people it will only happen faster.

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