Extinction: Not a pressing concern for humanity at this time
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.