If you have not yet read Ross Douthat's column about how we need more babies, you really should. In Douthatian fashion, it dealt with how policies might encourage family formation and then ended on this note:
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.
Now, this seemed pretty straightforward to me. But boy, did it set off some liberals. There were better responses than this absolutely unhinged one from a woman who it is reasonable to suspect is having imaginary conversations with a doctor. It's just unbridled emotional overload. Douthat responds to some of his critics and it's also well worth a read. The thing that bothered so many readers was his contention that we are decadent. Part of Douthat's response:
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 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?
Likewise for readers who regard any talk about the moral weight of reproductive choices as a subtle attempt to reimpose the patriarchy: 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? Indeed, isn’t it just possible that a modern culture that celebrated the moral component of childrearing more fully would end up serving certain feminist ends, rather than undermining them — by making public policy more friendly to work-life balance, by putting more cultural pressure on men to be involved fathers rather than slackers and deadbeat dads, and so on?
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?