The Single Life …

So, Ed Brayton is griping about someone talking about people choosing to remain single. With a title like “Another Doofus Attacks Single People”, you’d think I’d be on his side, being single myself from a combination of personal choice and limited access. But, I don’t think I am.

Brayton is after Benjamin E. Schwatrz’s review of Eric Klinenberg’s new book “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”. Schwartz sets out Klinenberg’s project and the concern he has about it here:

Klinenberg is rarely explicit about his convictions, which saves him the trouble of seriously assaying their implications, but he finally gets to the point directly in his conclusion, asserting that “living alone is an individual choice that’s as valid as the choice to get married or live with a domestic partner. . . . [I]t’s a collective achievement—which is why it’s common in developed nations but not in poor ones.” Klinenberg cites Sweden as a model to be emulated.

This is a novel position, to be sure, considering that no known civilization in human history has lauded solitary living as a social ideal. Either the extended family or, since the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family variant of it, has been a universal social norm for at least the past 10,000 years and arguably much longer than that. And you don’t need data to see why: Society needs children and children need families.

I think it mostly uncontroversial that if you are going to raise children, you kinda hafeta live with them. Sure, you can biologically produce children with only a brief period of contact with someone else, but in general in society raising children has involved a long-term investement of your time. And, in fact, that time is only increasing as we advance into the modern era; before, children were ready in various ways to take on “adult responsibilities” at 14, but now that’s not likely to be the case until they leave university at around 22.

It’s this sort of raising, then, that Schwartz is after, and that he is saying that living alone doesn’t allow for. Raising, in this sense, is preparing someone for their adult life by passing along your knowledge and your values, to give them a firm foundation for what they will learn elsewhere. So, for example, if you want to have a society of people who think for themselves, you need to have parents raising children to think for themselves, which almost sounds paradoxical. But, ultimately, in general society expects children to learn their values from their parents, even as they will get values from other places as well. But the parents and the family and the close friends are the main sources of this background. Which strikes against this comment by dingojack:

“Individuals don’t transfer values from one generation to the next”.

Uh – Mr Schwartz, tell that to rabbis, teachers, coaches, mentors and etc.

Yes, they do. Absolutely. But the primary source are, in fact, still close family and friends. If you go solo, remain alone, remain single, then you either are not having children at all — and quite possibly aren’t interacting with other people in any meaningful way to pass values — or you are passing over your responsibility to your children to these other groups, which is indeed selfish.

Schwartz goes on to talk about the sort of single living that the book promotes:

To this ancient wisdom, the contemporary social and natural sciences have added powerful evidence over the past quarter century. We are social animals and context is critical in all we do as individuals and as members of groups. Yet Klinenberg somehow manages to ignore the intergenerational ramifications of “going solo.” His selection of supporting evidence is revealing: “Compared with their married counterparts”, he writes, those who live alone

…are more likely to eat out and exercise, go to art and music classes, attend public events and lectures, and volunteer. There’s even evidence that people who live alone . . . have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles than families, since they favor urban apartments over large suburban homes.

It’s telling that the activities Klinenberg mentions are put forward self-evidently as barometers of the good life. He and his research assistants interviewed approximately 300 people who live alone, with the majority of research taking place in four boroughs of New York City, “whose diversity”, according to the author, “allowed for a heterogeneous sample within the parameters of a great city.” One of them was a divorced man named Steve, whose revelation is related as follows:

The problem, he realized, was that living with someone—even a woman he loved—meant denying himself the chance to enjoy an unfettered existence: Dating new women. Staying out as long as he wanted and not worrying about anyone else. Watching sports. Seeing movies. Meeting friends . . . Steven had grown to appreciate the virtues of living lightly, without obligation.

There’s a very sneaky move in that first quote from Klinenberg, effectively arguing that these single livers do a lot of good things, good things that married livers don’t do. But they do not necessarily do these things because they want to do good things. They prefer smaller apartments to large houses because it benefits them to live in a small apartment than in a house, not necessarily because they want to help the environment. It is not the case that they choose the single life because of the goods it allows them to acheieve, but is instead the case that they can do those goods because the single life allows for it or demands it more than the married life does, as is clear in the case of Steven in the last quote. Being single is not virtuous, nor does it make one virtuous. The people here do seem to be selfish, and Klinenberg really does seem to be trying to make their selfishness a virtue, to argue that their choice for themselves really is good for everyone. Sure, a consequentialist view might, in fact, claim that — if it ignores intentions entirely, which is a really bad idea — but then one likely should not use the term “virtue” to describe it. Singles like Steven are, in fact, selfish … even if that selfishness also helps others.

Which makes Brayton’s starting point unworthy of the rant it seems to be:

As someone who is both single and childless, it’s a little tiresome to be told by one dumbass after another that I’m selfish and can’t be virtuous.

Well, Klinenberg is, in fact, advocating selfishness, and Schwartz says — in a portion that Brayton fails to quote — why he thinks that sort of selfishness is incompatible with virtue:

Klinenberg’s use here of the word virtue is especially jarring. He is using the dictionary definition (“a good or useful quality of a thing”), but even a source as intellectually thin as Wikipedia understands that, “Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being.” Clearly, virtue requires moral reasoning, so how is it possible to conceive of “virtue” “without obligation”?

But, as it turns out, Klinenberg does not eliminate obligation … just obligation to others:

Klinenberg’s answer, citing the demographer Andrew Cherlin, is that “one’s primary obligation is [now] to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.” The basis for this assertion is found in Klinenberg’s introduction, in which he invokes German sociologist Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, who claim that, “For the first time in history the individual is becoming the basic unit of social reproduction.” For Klinenberg, procreation and family have been separated such that living alone and being a father or mother are no longer in necessary conflict. This is a foundational proposition and the keystone to the conceptual edifice Klinenberg constructs.

But how can you truly be a father or a mother if you aren’t with your child? How can you raise a child and impart good values to them, and provide them a good basis to forge their own identity in the world, if you aren’t with them? I live alone, and as alone as anyone could possibly be. If I had a child, and lived the life I live, it would be obvious that I would not be involved in any serious way in raising them. How they turn out, then, would have little to do with me. I would be passing my obligations on to other people, and letting them determine it. But don’t I have obligations to the children I actually have? And note here that Schwartz is very much talking about Klinenberg talking about singles who have children. So it’s hard to see at least initially how this would impact people who, for whatever reason, think that it’s better for everyone if they don’t have children.

We can get a glimpse of something else in the last paragraph that Brayton quotes:

The recognition that we are who we are because of our elders raises uncomfortable questions about our responsibility to future generations. If someone in my past forsook instant gratification to allow me to become who I am, does this obligate me to do the same? Am I responsible for ensuring that certain values outlast and outlive me? America’s strength is a function of many factors, but certainly one of them is that for generations citizens answered these questions affirmatively. The popularity of “going solo”, which Klinenberg’s data strongly affirms, doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are answering “no” to these questions. It’s worse than that: As more of us spend more of our lives alone, we’re less likely to even confront them. By default, we are now allowed the novel conceit that selfishness is a virtue.

It is here that Brayton weighs in:

And if someone was actually suggesting that others stop getting married or having children, this might be relevant. But it isn’t. My existence as a single person without children does not force or even encourage others to do the same; they can do whatever the hell they want. And I have no obligation to society to get married or have children. My life belongs to me, not to moral busybodies like Schwartz. Don’t like it? Then **** off.

So, Schwartz asks the question if someone sacrificing their interests for him obligates him and his generation requires him to do the same for the next, and laments that due to the idea that selfishness is now seen as a virtue people won’t even think to ask that question, and Brayton replies with … an insistence that he will do whatever he wants and it’s stupid to even ask the question because the only obligations he has are to himself. Well, see, that is indeed selfish, and so Brayton really is arguing that selfishness is a virtue. So, really, what is the complaint Brayton has about Schwartz? Schwartz has him pegged. He can argue that selfishness really ought to be a virtue, but I think if it is put that baldly few people will support it. Brayton sounds like he himself is not really aware that what he’s calling for and that extreme individualism is indeed selfishness, and so he can get upset at being called selfish while advocating selfishness.

Again, there’s nothing in what Schwartz comments that says that if you really think society would be better off without you having children that you can’t do so. He’s railing against living a solo life because you don’t want to accept obligations to anyone except yourself. Brayton is explicit that he sees himself as having no obligations except those to himself. He, thus, is a strict Ethical Egoist, concerned only with himself and his life. He may well be an enlightened one and be able to participate in a social contract because he realizes that screwing everyone else over won’t benefit him in the long run, but at the end of the day he is indeed selfish and only concerned for himself, if we can believe his comments about having no obligations to society or anyone else.

This Order of the Stick comment sums up the debate fairly well. I’m more on Durkon’s side than Hilgya’s. Which is why, despite being single, I cannot agree with Brayton’s or Klinenberg’s view. I do like being single and, in some sense, not having obligations to people; it lets me do what I want. However, as my co-workers already know, when I commit to something I do hold myself to those obligations, and try to balance the obligations I have to others to the obligations I have to myself. I will put my own desires aside to fulfill my obligations, even if I won’t necessarily get anything out of it like raises or even if I don’t really need it to ensure I keep my job, because to me having the job gives me obligations and responsibilities that I must fulfill. If I had a child, I would have those as well. And these can’t be tossed aside just because I’d rather not do them, and would rather something else. And I dearly hope that Brayton and Klinenberg agree with this; it seems disastrous not to.

At least to someone who is not totally selfish.


8 Responses to “The Single Life …”

  1. Tim Gruen Says:

    So – Rabbis, coaches, teachers and mentors are really parasitic twins? Not individuals at all? Because if they were individuals then Mr Schwartz’s statement (quoted) would be clearly false.

    “If you go solo, remain alone, remain single, then you either are not having children at all — and quite possibly aren’t interacting with other people in any meaningful way to pass values.”

    Citations please.


  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Dingo Jack,

    Did you actually read what I said there?

    Yes, they do. Absolutely. But the primary source are, in fact, still close family and friends.

    Statements have a context, and in the context of the article Schwartz is clearly using that statement to refer to the primary source … and also to an extreme individualism that doesn’t necessarily even allow for that. So your disagreement is not, in fact, a disagreement with what I said, but your comment still misses the point.

    “If you go solo, remain alone, remain single, then you either are not having children at all — and quite possibly aren’t interacting with other people in any meaningful way to pass values.”

    Citations please.

    I need a citation to show that if you are living alone you might not be having children or might not be interacting with anyone? And you misquoted me here by making it look like that was all I said, but I gave two options:

    If you go solo, remain alone, remain single, then you either are not having children at all — and quite possibly aren’t interacting with other people in any meaningful way to pass values — or you are passing over your responsibility to your children to these other groups, which is indeed selfish.

    Which demonstrates my actual point, repeated in the article. Yes, they can transmit values to children, but if you live alone as per the people in this article you either do not have children — by choice, presumably — or since you aren’t raising them your primary responsibility is being passed on to those people who, again, I concede can pass values, but I argue are not the ones primarily responsible for doing so.

  3. TCC Says:

    The whole “selfish” angle is really disingenuous. Not wanting to be a parent is not an inherently selfish act (or lack thereof). Yes, society does need parents to pass on values (although they do not exclusively do so, and I can personally attest that a lot of my values are not shared with my parents), but being a parent is (at most) a supererogatory action, in my view: it might be considered virtuous to raise children (at least depending on how they’re raised), but it is by no means morally necessary to do so. It’s also necessary for a well-functioning society to have police officers, but that doesn’t mean that not being a police officer is evidence of vice.

  4. verbosestoic Says:


    My post concedes that in multiple places. It is, however, selfish to either make that decision or refuse to consider whether you have an obligation to do so based strictly on how much it would benefit you. Recall from the quotes that Schwartz is reacting to a very strongly selfish account of single life, one where the solo or single life is chosen specifically to avoid having any obligations to anyone else. Thus, the argument is starting from a conception that IS selfish, and yet is being held up as virtuous. Add in Brayton’s reply that really is about not considering any obligations to society or beyond himself, and it is not in any way disingenuous to say that in the cases listed it is a selfish decision or determination. Which should have been made clear by my pointing out my own singleness that isn’t selfish; mine is not a matter of not wanting to have any obligations that are to others than myself, or even society, but is in fact mostly over circumstances. In another post, I plan to examine whether I should answer Schwartz’s question with “Yes”.

  5. TCC Says:

    There is no “obligation to society” to have children. I have two kids, and I can assure you that I didn’t have them because of some perceived obligation. In fact, I find it rather disgusting that anyone would even do so for that reason.

  6. verbosestoic Says:


    I find your strong response here a bit puzzling. Putting aside whether one does have an obligation to society, when deciding to have children the two chocies being offered here — there may be more — are:

    1) Choosing to have children because you believe it is good for society if you do.

    2) Choosing to have children because you believe it is good for you personally if you do.

    Put this way, it seems that 1) is the nobler reason, and yet that’s the one that you consider “disgusting”.

    Once you have children, it’s clear that no matter what reason you had for entering into it, an obligation is incurred and so you need to live up to that obligation. Now, treating children like a burden is not likely to be a good thing, so I can see an argument here that once you have children you should treat and raise them well out of love and out of a genuine desire to promote their well-being, not simply out of obligation. But that’s not relevant to the reason you decided to have children in the first place, as you can love them even if your reason for having children was a social obligation, or not love them even if you chose to have children because you thought it benefitted you. The former case, in fact, brings you into it already being prepared for the direct benefits to you personally not being outweighed by the obligations, while the latter doesn’t.

    So I am quite puzzled about what in this disgusts you.

  7. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    He is a living example of poor parenting worsened by high education.

  8. Do I Have a Responsibility to Society to Marry and Have Children? « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] The promised follow-up to my post on Ed Brayton’s post about being single. […]

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