Douthat And Decadence
Ross answers critics who say (among other things) that his imputing “decadence” to Westerners who won’t have children, or many children, is wrong. Excerpt:
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 you are a true misanthrope, a radical environmentalist, or a partisan of voluntary human extinction, then of course you can feel free to answer “no” to these questions. But readers who consider themselves humanists should consider: Is there any population better situated to bestow fulfilling, flourishing, opportunity-rich lives on future generations than the inhabitants of rich democracies? Yes, those opportunities can be bestowed in part through generous immigration policies, but why not go for the direct path as well as the bank-shot? (Especially since historically speaking, shrinking, aging societies tend to have more trouble assimilating large immigrant inflows than countries like, well, the relatively fecund United States.) 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?
People are up in arms over the idea that sub-replacement fertility is a sign of “decadence,” but Douthat’s observation here is spot-on:
But it’s also the nature of decadent societies to deny that the category of “decadence” exists.
When we hear the word “decadence,” we typically think of some louche 19th-century aesthete, sprawled out on an opium-smoking couch, or passed out next to the absinthe bottle in a Parisian cafe. Or we think of a Roman aristocrat puking at the vomitarium so he can return to the feast and eat more. Or we think of a contemporary aristo like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, frequenting orgies at seedy hotels in Lille, or John McAfee, going mad with his money and his dope in Central America. Or we think of the welfare mother and the babydaddy, spawning children left and right, spending their money on drink or drugs, and depending on the state to support them.
We don’t think of ourselves. In fact, far from being decadent, having 1.8 children looks to many people like an act of personal responsibility. How on earth can self-disciplined, bourgeois people like us be considered decadent?
My TAC colleague Noah Millman has a good response to Ross on the particulars. Clearly fertility decline is a complicated phenomenon, and given that it’s happening around the world, among very different cultures, it’s hard to maintain that everybody is “decadent.” Nevertheless, I think at the moral and spiritual level, Ross is onto something. There is something disturbing about people as wealthy as contemporary Americans — relative to the rest of the world, and relative to previous American generations — refusing to reproduce at replacement level, which is a pretty low minimum standard to expect from the richest and most free generation that has ever lived.
If we call people today “decadent,” we have to ask how we measure that decay. That is, what’s the standard from which society is falling away? I think the answer is that we are falling away from a standard that sees life — particularly the creation of the next generation — as a primary good, and its creation and nurturing as normative. We have lost the idea, individually and collectively, that bearing and preparing the next generation is a right and proper telos for society, and that our role is to be stewards. Look, I am grateful that I live now, and not a hundred years ago. Among other advances, we have more choice than my parents’ generation did. They had more choice than their parents’ generation did. But when choice itself becomes more important than what is chosen, and self-fulfillment becomes more important than self-sacrifice, when fear and resentment over what we lack becomes more prominent than hope in and gratitude for what we have, then we enter into a spiritual and moral condition that may be rightly called decadent. It’s not for nothing that the Bible identifies wealth as having a high potential for being corrupting. And God knows we are wealthy.