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Thursday, December 06, 2012

On the immorality of future considerations

Phoebe claims that not only are Ross Douthat's natalist arguments bad political rhetoric, but they're actually immoral:
Natalism's immorality comes from the fact that it's about prioritizing non-existent beings over ones who already exist, namely women. Not fetuses, who are or are not babies depending your views on this. Entirely theoretical offspring of people who went out on a date this one time and didn't really click but by putting their own preferences over immediate procreation revealed their profound, selfish decadence.
I wonder, does she think that prioritizing non-existent beings over the current preferences of existing ones is always immoral?* One obvious problem with this claim arises in all forms of environmental management aimed at preserving natural resources not simply for me tomorrow, but for the nonexistent people of the future (even the female ones). Is it immoral to manage fish stocks so that people of the future can eat sushi? Because if so, that's great! I love sushi, and would like all the world's tuna shipped to me, pronto. I verifiably exist, and therefore it's my moral  and delicious duty to eat it all before anyone else can get to it. (Ok, I acknowledge that you exist too, dear reader, so we can split the world's tuna 60/40 if you do some of the legwork.) Which, ironically, is of course an argument from let's call it selfishness, since no one seems to know what "decadence" exactly means. Is it as a rule immoral to ask citizens to consider (indeed, even make sacrifices for) the future good of their political community because doing so privileges the good of the whole over their individual, momentary desires?

Now, there is obviously a more hard-headed, characteristically Phoebe-ish way to construct the argument, which is that it's not "immoral," but simply bad politics to ask citizens to consider the future good of their political community in the specific terms of baby output. You should still consider recycling and tutoring kids at the library because that's good for the whole at little expense to you, but you ought not view your womb as a weapon of international strategic importance. Because the personal costs of womb-based decisions are so high, you should do as you wish with your own womb, assuming you know what you want to do, which Phoebe does assume. Hence, Phoebe's other arguments for both making birth control and abortion available and de-stigmatizing early marriage and childbearing. More choices for everyone, no harsh judgment against anyone's own choices.

That sounds fine, but also inconsistent with her exhortation that women never be publicly encouraged to reproduce. We know how to enact the policies required to make greater avoidance of baby-making possible - include birth control in health insurance, make abortion accessible, etc. But how exactly would we formulate a conscious policy of de-stigmatizing early family formation for those women who want it, except through a public rhetoric that frames baby-making as a good and worthwhile activity? We cannot single out and isolate those women who are firmly committed to early motherhood and pitch warm fuzzy messages exclusively to them while putting cotton in the ears of all those women who don't want to be pressured to reproduce. We might of course send out competing messages - some, like Douthat's, that endorse procreation, and other's, like shrieking Katha Pollitt's, that oppose it (maybe unless we become Sweden, where occasional procreation would be ok) - and assume that these will appeal to and hearten different kinds of women facing cross-pressures. Which is of course what we already do, but shouldn't Phoebe then respond more favorably to Douthat, who is hardly advocating that women drop everything for procreation?

But there is one final difficulty with this arrangement, which is Phoebe's sometime-assumption that women (and men) simply know what they want in terms of family formation, and that knowledge comes from somewhere deep within them and should not be manipulated by political ideologues. Douthat commits a social sin by presuming to tell women what they want, as do feminists who insist that women must put their careers ahead of everything else (and maybe feminists who say that women should boycott procreation until their husbands give them socialism for their birthdays, which Pollitt's concluding point implies). According to Phoebe, women already know what they want, whether it's large or small or no families, and the state should simply facilitate their access to it. But if that's the case, then why be concerned over op-eds? Op-eds are just arguments; they aren't laws, they're not denying anyone access to either sperm or condoms, and if women already know what they want, then they won't be moved by them. Who cares if some conservative dinosaur accuses you of decadence when you know what you want and you're sticking to it? We should exercise ourselves over law and policy, but not mere rhetoric.

Unless it's possible that women, like men, kinda sorta know what they want, but maybe not quite when or how they want it, and you're afraid that mere rhetoric might actually work to persuade them to behave in ways they may not have behaved had they never heard the rhetoric, thereby rendering their choices inauthentic or - more concretely - regrettable. But how is that possible? If people are even mostly decided on such issues, then no hard-charging single career woman is going to read Douthat and Co., and say to herself, "You know, they're right. I'm going to get myself knocked up right now and start a baby farm instead of clerking for the Supreme Court." Neither of course will some Quiverfull enthusiast abandon her own baby farm to start climbing the corporate ladder because she read Jezebel. These would presumably be the types of people who would be most likely to regret such decisions, not the women who are just unsure if now is the right time, or maybe next month or year, or if a second or third child is really what they want. If women's minds on these matters are made up early, only wavering types are open to being nudged by rhetoric, and it must cut both ways - natalist rhetoric encourages wavering women to have babies, and strident feminism discourages them. Is it a wash? It should be. But again, if it were, why bother attacking either side as Phoebe does, instead of permitting them to attack each other?

So I suspect - and her arguments suggest - that Phoebe does actually believe that women do not know what they want at the same time that she believes they do know it, not because they're hysterical idiots, but because like all humans thinking about the future, they're uncertain and they fear regret. They are very susceptible to the pressure of public rhetoric (which must be true if destigmatizing early family formation is to do any good). So whatever limited innate inclinations people do come equipped with in the realm of procreation, they must also be taught what they should want to want, and here, public rhetoric matters and we can no longer simply claim to be non-judgmentally expanding the realm of choice for everyone rather than promoting some choices over others.

*There are obviously many more examples of the difficulty of this assertion about morality, some more germane to the topic even than tuna. For example, is it immoral to make one's personal life decisions like moving to the suburbs or not sniffing glue according to what might be good for a future child not yet conceived? Is it immoral to trim the national debt or even the budget deficit because we hope this will keep the country solvent in the long run (that is, for the as-yet-unborn) even if that means we cut some social spending or raise taxes on the people who presently exist?

UPDATE: Phoebe responds.

2 comments:

Phoebe said...

Think I'll get to more of this (specifically re: what women want) at WWPD, but for the time being...

"Op-eds are just arguments; they aren't laws [...]"

Indeed, but this particular op-ed is a) in a very influential forum, and b) written by someone who - am I missing something? misremembering the book version? - advocates for natalist government policy. Perhaps not in this particular op-ed, which was more like, NYT readers, go forth and multiply.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, so is the immorality in the possibility that rhetoric can end up influencing policy? Are both the abstract argument and the concrete policy immoral, or just one or the other?

If I recall correctly, Douthat's proposed natalist policies in Grand New Party consisted of procreation incentives and assistance like child tax credits and S-CHIP. He's not proposing to force women's hands any more than I'd think that the availability of abortion or contraception forces them the other way. If natalist policy is non-coercive, is that still a problem? It would seem from your argument that such policies would also benefit your population of willing but stigmatized (and probably poorer due to their age) young mothers, and so would be an ideal complement to policies that make contraception and abortion available.