Morality and the empty cradle

Morality in every culture means striving for behaviors that transcend self-interest.  The moral parliament includes the dead and the not yet born, and we who are alive at this moment will be held to account by them for every act of self-indulgence that reduces the sum of human value in our common story.

To be good, I think, is to live in some measure beyond oneself.  Traditionally, religion has provided the models for transcendence; but one needn’t be Mother Teresa, or at all religious, to live beyond oneself.  Engagement in civic affairs, in the life of the community, is a perfectly secular way to achieve this end.

But the most immediate path to virtue is the family.  Every mother and father will know what I mean:  once a child is born, the parents’ lives are no longer their own.  This can be a source of immense happiness, or a test of character; usually both.  In any case, since life must precede both liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we Americans affirm our traditions as well as our natural instincts when we aspire to parenthood.

I come to my theme, which is the unwillingness of Europeans to reproduce themselves, and to my text, which is this TCS article by the delightfully named Pavel Kohout, described as an associate of the Center for Economics and Politics in Prague.

The decline in European birth rates is becoming a well-known story.  Kohout’s article provides an economic interpretation for the demographic implosion.  Whereas in the agricultural past children had economic value, in the postmodern present, he argues, they have become an expensive commodity, competing with cats and dogs for the affection of budget-limited consumers.

Today, children no longer represent investments; instead, they have become pets – objects of luxury consumption. However, the pet market segment is very competitive. It is characteristic that the birth rate decline in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, was accompanied by soaring numbers of dog-owners in cities. While in the past dog-owners were predominantly retirees, today there are many young couples that have consciously decided to have a dog instead of a baby. These are mainly young professionals who have come to a conclusion (whether right or wrong) that they lack either time or money to have a child. Thus, they invest their emotional surpluses into animals.

Sociological explanations have also been put forward, usually based on the changing role of women.  As European females invest more time in education and career, the average age of first-time mothers becomes increasingly older, locking in a decline in birth rates and, soon enough, in the population.

Economic possibilities channel human behavior; aspirations for meaningful work and success motivate European women, no less than the rest of us.  But I wonder whether these explanations are sufficient to account for the astonishing decline in the numer of babies made in Europe by this generation.

If one believes human behavior is shaped by grand, impersonal forces, then the answer is yes.  An alternative hypothesis, which I intend to explore, is that grand, impersonal forces emerge from the decision to behave one way made by individuals who could have decided differently.  And the choice can be informed by morality or naked self-interest.

Do we have a moral duty to reproduce?  Seems like a strange question.  The decision to have children is an intensely personal one.  The community plays no part.  We even frown on parents who put pressure on a couple to produce grandkids.  Yet, as the case of Europe shows, the community has a fundamental interest in the outcome.  If enough private choices turn against reproduction, the community dies.

The answer to the question is:  it depends.  As I said above, there are many ways to transcend self-interest.  Having a family happens to be the most universally accessible.  And I can think of times and places when starting a family would be reprehensible – I wouldn’t do so if I were unmarried, for example, or if I lived in North Korea.  We reproduce not only an organism but a way of life.  If we enjoy and value our way of life, it would be selfish, all things being equal, not to share it with the future.

When one examines the European way of life, a number of recent departures from tradition immediately attract attention.  Even in the most religious countries, like Ireland and Spain, church attendance has collapsed.  Since the 1970’s, the institution of marriage has largely lost its legitimacy; the rates of divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed across the continent.  And whatever the economics behind these changes, working harder isn’t a factor:  the average French worker, for example, toiled 23.5 percent fewer hours in 2002 than in 1970.

A curious portrait emerges of the population of postmodern Europe.  It enjoys freedom, long life, education, and relative prosperity, but is increasingly unwilling to commit to religious ideals, or to a spouse, or to parenthood, or to hard work.

Such a cluster of behaviors can’t be sustained for long.  Old pensioners will soon outnumber young workers; fewer workers will mean still fewer hours worked.  Every secularist European who enters postmodern heaven is replaced by a zealous Muslim, whose ideas about political and social freedom will come from the Koran, not the Enlightenment.  Kohout is by no means the first to worry about “the end of democracy in Europe.”

An older generation chose differently.  Coming generations will look back to this moment in Europe with wonder.  In the parliament of morals, where the dead and the unborn call us to account, the current generation of Europeans will have much explaining to do.



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