Do I Have a Responsibility to Society to Marry and Have Children?

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

In the previous post, Schwartz basically asked the question if we are obligated to sacrifice our interests for the next generation because the previous generation sacrificed their interests for our generation, basically asking if we have an obligation to spawn and raise and provide for the next generation because our parents did it for us. Let’s put aside people who decide to take part in the “raising” part not of their own children, but for the children of others, since I think that this can count as raising even to Schwartz because what he talks about is people deciding to not get involved in raising their own children or doing anything else unless it benefits them explicitly, which is clearly selfish. Schwartz could argue that we have an obligation to society to get involved in any way we can, and it wouldn’t damage his point much. This might be a bit of a gray area, though, so as I said let’s put it aside and compare, directly, two people: a strawman of Ed Brayton that I’ll call “Tonbray” and myself, both of whom are single and, it seems, aren’t likely to change that any time soon.

So, let’s say that Schwartz’s argument holds, and that essentially because we received the benefits of this sort of self-sacrifice it obligates us to pass that on to the next generation in some way. By this, both myself and Tonbray would have an obligation to get married and have children (taking the strong form). And yet, neither of us see that happening. Is my, then, apparent rejection of a married life just as much me not living up to my responsibilties as it would be for Tonbray?

Now, here’s where I a likely making a massive strawman out of Brayton to create Tonbray:

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, taking this to an extreme that may not really reflect Brayton’s view — giving an excellent example of how rants don’t contribute to reasonable discussion — I’ll translate this as “Look, if I think it benefits me to get married, I will, but I won’t do it for any other reason, and right now I don’t want it and so won’t even try to get it, so screw off!” This is tying Tonbray in to the point Schwartz was trying to make, which was about people basically choosing to be alone for no other reason than that they’re happier alone, or they think it benefits them. They aren’t trying anymore, even if they could succeed with even a modicum of effort, merely because they don’t want to.

On the other side, you have me. I did try to get relationships, more so when I was younger. It was, generally, unsuccessful. I am still open to possibly having one, but at this point don’t particularly expect it to happen. I made an effort, and did not have success, and even now am making less effort for various reasons, and am still not having success. I’m not abandoning it, but don’t see the real impetus to make great efforts at this time.

So, the big difference here is intent. Again, at this point presuming that there is some sort of societal obligation that we both have to get married and have and raise children, the basic notion here is that I have tried and failed while Brayton insists that he has no obligation to try, and so won’t try. And this is why I call this at least potentially a massive strawman of Brayton, since it is possible that he is actually trying harder than I am, and in fact did also try when he was younger or whatever. But even taking this into account we can see that the difference here is in intent. The consequences are the same, which is both of us remaining single and childless, and both of us may accept that. However, if there is a societal obligation here my response to it is simply to say that I tried and I didn’t manage to achieve that state — while being open to it — while Tonbray refuses to try because it won’t benefit him.

Thus, if there really is a social obligation here, I can say that I tried but it didn’t work out, and that while I have made effort if society really considers it that important for me, specifically, to have and raise children then it should do more to make it possible for me to do so. There should be more support structures in place to catch cases like mine. Sure, an argument can be made that I should make a larger effort, or that I tried in the wrong way, but if it is so critical to society that no one fail at this then there is an obligation on society to, in fact, do everything they can to ensure that anyone who is willing to fulfill their obligation does not fail at it. If, however, certain individuals failing at it is not a problem and, perhaps, might even be a benefit — that “overpopulation” thing — then I have fulfilled my obligations by trying, even if I tried ineptly.

Tonbray, however, has not tried, and so cannot claim to have met their obligations. He is also refusing to continue to try, and doing so not because he believes that society will be better off if he stops trying, not because he believes that he will simply continue to fail to achieve it, but instead because he doesn’t think that living up to that responsibility will lead to the best possible life for himself. Thus, he sets aside his obligations.

At this point, we can still ask if we really have that obligation, but I think it is a reasonable position to take, if not one that’s completely settled. That it would be selfish of us to refuse to sacrifice for the next generation despite benefitting from the sacrifices of the previous one seems fairly reasonable. But note that even if we do have that obligation, I argue that I have met it and Tonbray has not, and that I continue to meet it while Tonbray does not. This, to me, is one of the key insights that intentionalists — like the Stoics — have that consequentialists miss. As the Stoics generally argued, it does no good to base your morality on the outcomes or consequences of an action, because you don’t control them. There are many things beyond your control that might make it impossible for you to achieve the consequences you are aiming for no matter how hard you try. But surely there is a morally important difference between someone who tries to do a good thing and, possibly, produce a good outcome and fails and someone who simply doesn’t try to achieve a good result. Someone who manages to make everyone happy out of totally self-interested motives is surely less moral than someone who through no fault or negligence of their own causes unhappiness. Now, in the Stoic view, of course, happiness is not the goal, but from this we can see that in almost all cases intentions and motives really do matter to the moral evaluation of the action. This is something that intentionalists grasp and consequentialists seem not to, and this is one of the main reasons that I reject consequentialist moralities … at least those that measure morality by what actually happens as opposed to what the person legitimately thought would happen.

But I digress.

So, finally, what about my having an obligation to raise the children of the next generation? Well, looking at society, the primary people who are to raise people are, in fact, their parents and extended family. If I have to step in, it is because someone else is unwilling or unable to fulfill their own responsibilities. Do I have an explicit responsibility to take on the responsibilities of others if they are unwilling or unable to fulfill them? It seems odd to suggest that I have a responsibility to take on other people’s responsibilities without my having done something, explicitly, to make myself next in line for them. I don’t have a responsibility to, say, do another co-worker’s work if they get sick unless I either volunteer or my manager asks me to, both of which tie into responsibilities that I (mostly) freely accept (explicitly in volunteering or indirectly through my responsibility to my manager that I accepted when I accepted the job). But I have, it seems, no responsibility to volunteer; it is nice of me, but not morally demanded.

Thus, we can see that this is the case:

If you have tried to fulfill your responsibility, and yet due to circumstances mostly beyond your control fail anyway, you have fulfilled your obligation. Here, this is the person who tries to get married and have children and has it simply not work out.

If you decide that the best way to fulfill your responsibility is not through the general mechanisms, but through alternative methods, then doing that alternative means that you have fulfilled that responsibility. This is the person who decides that while they’d make a lousy parent, they make a great coach or teacher or mentor, and so do that instead.

However, if you decide that you are not going to try to fulfill your responsibility in any way because you don’t want to, you have not fulfilled your responsibility. This is Tonbray, and some of the people in Klinenberg’s article.

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