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March 09, 2009


Joyless Moralist

Not to get all Aristotelian on you, Nato, but the thing about the truth is that is generally located between various extremes. That's the problem with a slippery slope argument like the one you suggest. It's true, the Victory Through Daughters thing is kind of creepy... though actually, most of the individual pieces of the program are things that I've encountered before in other traditionally-inclined religious communities. My experience of extreme religious conservatism is mainly through Catholic or Muslim communities (I could mention the Mormons, but the Mormons I've known haven't been all that extreme in matters like this), but I gather similar issues arise in orthodox Judaism and probably many other faiths as well. For my liberal academic friends and associates, tales like Victory Through Daughters are mostly the stuff of legend (or freakish feature stories!), but I've discussed most of these points in a perfectly serious way on multiple occasions, both with Catholics and with Muslims. I've heard vigorous defenses of the necessity of homeschooling and of women dressing always in long skirts. I've heard much of the evils of letting women have careers or go to college, and of letting men do any "feminine" household chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry) that should properly be the duty of the wife. I argued against all of these positions, but I bring it up just to establish that, insofar as I am not a feminist, it isn't because I don't take seriously the possibility of attitudes such as these actually arising and affecting the lives of women. On the contrary, these views are extremely real to me.

But, again to quote Aristotle... it is possible to miss a mark in more than one way. The truth in cases like these is generally quite complicated, and there is more than one unfortunate extreme to which a person/society can go. "Feminism" has been defined in lots of ways, but at least in some of its more strident forms, it does seem to me to be a case of overcompensating for one kind of error by missing the mark on a different side. Women should not be taught that they exist more or less exclusively to carry babies and fetch their husbands' slippers. But neither should they be taught to think that having children or caring for husbands is undignified and unfulfilling (as has sometimes happened in our own culture). Forbidding girls ever to associate with anyone outside their small community is quite harmful to them in one way, but condoning unchecked promiscuity is very harmful in another. I don't know that you would disagree with any of this per se, but I say it just because I think the sort of argument to which you implicitly appealed in your last post is unsound. We should be striving to find the truth of this rather complicated matter, not exchanging one set of errors for another.

But actually, I agree with you that it wouldn't be healthy for everyone, at any rate, to adopt a position as clear-cut as Nathan's with regards to working and childcare. I'm fine with there being some level of *presumption* that men are more likely to be the breadwinners and women full-time caregivers. I think there are some good reasons for that, but at the same time, as you point out, life is complicated and there's no reason to close options unnecessarily. Sometimes it's feasible for both parents to work, either through one working at home, or by finding other caregivers (nannies, other relatives, etc.), or by each making some adjustments to their work schedule. And sometimes it does just make more sense for the woman to be the primary breadwinner. Guidelines can be helpful for setting expectations, but at the end of the day the needs of the family should dictate the working arrangement. And the family will have more stability if the mother is at least potentially employable. I would never think of it as "divorce insurance" (it seems to me that a marriage is much more likely to endure if both spouses plan and operate on the assumption that it will), but no matter how healthy her marriage is, a woman can't be sure she won't need to work at some point. Her husband could die, or lose his job, or become unable to work for some reason. Or the family could have an unexpected financial crisis such that they badly needed an extra income. Even if she doesn't want a career for purposes of personal fulfillment, it certainly doesn't hurt to have the option.

Of course, in an economy like ours, it's not always easy to stay employable for years on end if you're not actually employed. But that's a whole different conversation.


I've never met you, Nathan, but I'm guessing that you're single based on this post. And if you ever find a woman who agrees with your views, she's going to be very, very dull and lifeless. I can't imagine that what you do is so important as to warrant your view on your career being more important than your wife's, or more important than time with your children for that matter. Where's the "morality" in that? I mean, are you curing cancer? Are you protecting people's lives on a daily basis? Maybe you should back away from the computer, meet some people who aren't just like you, loosen up, and learn to enjoy life a little more. Than maybe you'll find someone who can tolerate becoming your spouse.


His question is hyptothetical, J.T. He's not saying these are his views. He is also not suggesting that his career is so important. Rather, the question is more along the lines of, is what was more or less regarded as the ideal in the 1950's (not so much the age question, but the patriarchal type of arrangement) immoral--to which I would have to respond, no, it isn't immoral, but it isn't very appealing.

Nathan Smith

Hehe. :) Hi JT, thanks for the frank reply! However, as MS points out, you didn't quite engage with the question posed. I asked: Is there something *morally* wrong with the suggested modification of patterns in gender relations. I'm not quite clear on whether you think there is something morally wrong with it or not, though it seems that you do. But that leads to the next question: what is the broader meta-ethical standpoint from which you're making the moral objection? That's what I want to know. You seem to be a good person to tell me, since you seem to have the moral intuitions that I've recognized some people hold but find it hard to understand and am therefore curious about.

Since you ask, I'm not just single, but, alas, divorced. I didn't marry a woman ten years my junior as suggested in the post. I married a woman four years younger than myself: I was 26, she was 22. To complicate things further, she was Russian. It's a little hard to convey the romantic notions that led me into such a dreadful mistake, so never mind.

Did I say anything about career being more important than spending time with children? I don't see a conflict between those two things. At least one parent has to do both. As for thinking my career might be more important than my wife's, well, um... in a two-career couple, unless by a great coincidence the importance of both careers is exactly equal, then one of them must be more important than the other, right? Unless we're going to pretend that all careers are equally important, but that's sort of silly, isn't it? And it doesn't seem to be ideal for the careers to be equally important; if anything, it would just make certain kinds of decisions (do spouses A and B move house for the sake of A's promotion if it means a setback to B's career) harder to make.

There is probably some truth in the idea that women who want to marry and start families young tend to be a bit duller, from a worldly point of view, than women who do lots of other things in the meantime, though JT exaggerates. My first wife was not at all dull, she was romantic and spontaneous and full of artistic fancies; full of generous impulses too; but at the end of the day, the lack of guiding principles in her life caused her to bring only unhappiness to those close to her. Dullness is a vice, but quite a minor one. If I was married to a woman who was not particularly "original" but was honest and loyal and affectionate (and fertile), that would be fine.


Nathan, I really liked how you responded fairly politely to a very impolite comment, but the addition of "and fertile" was highly unfortunate.

Nathan Smith

Aha! Now here is a moral objection of which I think I can guess, tentatively, the meta-ethical standpoint from which it is made. I think Nato would argue-- I'll make the argument in my own idiom but I think the substance would be something like this-- that you shouldn't blame a person for things that are outside their control. The suggestion, therefore, that if I married a woman who proved barren I would be disappointed regard her as an inadequate wife is offensive.

Fair enough, and I should clarify. What I really meant by the word "fertile" was perhaps not strictly part of what it signifies semantically: I meant "willing to bear children" rather than "able to bear children." I probably wouldn't marry a woman whom I knew was unable to bear children; in particular, I would avoid marrying a woman whose *age* was too great for her to be likely to be fertile. There might be circumstances in which I would, but the presumption would be against it. If, however, I married a woman who intended to raise a family with me, but it turned out that she was infertile, that would be fine. I'd be disappointed-- she would be too, presumably-- but it would be a misfortune rather than an injury. If a woman married me but refused to bear children, by contrast, I would regard that as a sin and myself as sinned against. That's not to say that I couldn't forgive or love such a woman-- as Augustine says, "hate the sin but love the sinner"-- and I think that in particular if later in life, when it was too late, she repented of her refusal, a full reconciliation would be possible, and repentance and forgiveness might even turn it into a new source of joy-- "there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ten righteous men..."-- but it would be a moral stain casting its shadow over a whole life.

Now, Nato may-- I don't know-- still find this position objectionable. There might be a Kantian objection, that you should treat people as ends rather than means, and to want a wife to produce children is to regard her as a means. But I'm not sure that I agree with this Kantian idea. It seems that people need to be needed, need to be of use, and if you insist on regarding them always as ends you thwart this, because they are of use only to the extent that people treat them as means. Do I feel "used," in the indignant phrase people sometimes say, when someone calls on me to exercise my musical or mathematical skills? Not exactly; I feel useful, and glad to be of use. I shouldn't object if a wife listed "not impotent" among her criteria for a husband. I would regard the desideratum as quite appropriate, and, assuming I could satisfy it as I expect is the case, would be glad to be of use.

Nato (or JT) may or may not subscribe to the following view which I'll state and I think some may subscribe to, consciously or implicitly. It is archaic and offensive for a husband to demand from his wife a willingness to bear children. That is her own choice. Neither spouse has a right to demand parenthood from the other, but especially not the man, since as a biological matter the woman has a harder task. An expectation of parenthood is not an appropriate basis for the decision to marry, which should be motivated by romantic love, that is, a blend of sexual and personal/moral attraction and admiration between two persons. It's all right if children are seen as a probable result of marriage or as a shared interest of the marriage partners prior to the marriage. But marriage does not and must not be perceived to involve an *obligation* of this kind on either side. Such a demand would violate the rights of spouse on whom it was made. Moreover, it would suggest that the feelings of romantic love from the partner making the demand are inadequate, since romantic love of A for B strong enough to justify marriage ought to be such as to make A perfectly happy with B regardless of other conditions such as worldly success or children. B is entitled to ask with some indignation: Am I not enough for you, then?

To be married to someone with the attitudes expressed in the last paragraph is my nightmare scenario.

Nathan Smith

It occurs to me to wonder, by the way, if there might be a bit of projection in JT's remarks. Addressed to the position I took in the post, JT's question "what [do] you do [that] is so important?" doesn't make that much sense. I just said it's hard for young people to get a start in life. I don't think I suggested, or at least I don't need to be taken as saying, that a man's career need be anything other than a way to be a breadwinner for a family. The point is that the way jobs and the economy work nowadays, a man might be able to fulfill that role much better by marrying in the 30-35 age range than earlier.

But let me turn the question around and ask a woman making JT's objections to the scheme, what do *you* do that is so important it can't be sacrificed to raising a family? Now the question is more compelling. Since a man who dedicates himself to building a career in his 20s probably would, by his 30s, earn enough to be sole breadwinner for a family, JT could not say, as I can, that a job is first and foremost a means of humbly supporting oneself and one's loved ones.


Just a very short comment to fit my available time: I really, *really* want to be a father and raise kids. Because I think I would have a substantial advantage in raising kids with traits pulled from both myself and someone I know and love, I very much prefer biological children. However, my wife can't *owe* me something like children because of the immensity of the commitment that involves. It's just too deep to be something one could consider some kind of binding obligation. Thus if my wife decides she can't be a mother for some reason, I have to accept it and not blame her.

That said, I would not have married my wife if I had not been reasonably certain that we would be able to pursue an endeavor that is easily the most important goal I have yet to achieve in any respect*. There is still a chance that she will change her mind, and I am confident that if she does so it will be for a good reason. At that time we'll work out what else is possible (adoption, fostering, or some other option), but I won't have grounds for feeling sinned against unless she actually acts in bad faith. That, however, would be an entirely different problem.

*I have other goals that are competitive in importance, but I'm at least on my way to fulfilling them

Nathan Smith

"Because of the immensity of the commitment that involves?" What does the size of the commitment have to do with whether something can be owed? A soldier may, in certain military situations, be duty-bound to sacrifice his life for his country, or be a coward. The immensity of the price paid doesn't nullify the obligation. And isn't marriage itself-- it implies lifelong faithfulness and support, does it not?-- a commitment comparable in scale to, possibly even larger than, parenthood?

I would agree (though I think many legal and cultural traditions would not) that a husband mustn't use coercion against a wife for the sake of having kids. But a married couple can have a mutual moral obligation to have kids together if the other wills it and they are able, and I think this is part of the proper meaning of marriage.


This is obviously something couples should talk about before they get married. If one wants kids and the other doesn't, then they have to decide if they really want to marry. But if a couple agrees they want kids before marriage and then one of them changes their mind after, I'd say that is a serious breach of their understanding and resentment is certainly in order. And I might just add--here's the thing about kids--before you have them, other people's kids, while sometimes cute, are often whiny and dirty and messy and appear to be lot of trouble. But when you have that baby of your own, well, you fall in love and they become the most charming creature on earth. Many people don't discover that until they have that baby. That's why I said a year ago that it is best if most people assume that they will get married and have kids. BTW--the best movie that illustates the joys and sorrows of kids for my money is Parenthood. Family Man is a close second.


The commitment is immense, but it is not all, or even primarily, to a spouse. It is undertaking an obligation to raise a child*, with all that's wrapped up in that. That's a foolish sort of thing to demand of someone even if it were ethical. If that's the only option because of a circumstances beyond control, that's one thing, but obligation to a spouse is extremely dubious grounds for undertaking parenthood.

*Setting aside all the other options for the moment.

Joyless Moralist

To love someone less because she suffers from infertility, is offensive.

But to hope that one's wife should be fertile – surely that is not? Neither is it offensive to hope that one's wife is beautiful, healthy generally, etc.

I don't have time to expand on this thought just now, but it seems to me that bearing/raising children *must* be an obligation of some kind (perhaps not *only* to a spouse, though in my view it's all wrapped up in a larger pattern of life, if you will, such that it's an obligation to one's spouse, one's society, God, etc. all in one), or else it isn't justified at all. How could another life, equal to mine, be justified merely by my interest in experiencing parenthood? The burden of responsibility that we take on ourselves when we have a child would be almost unbearably heavy if we didn't have obligation to justify ourselves. I don't wish to be held personally accountable for everything that my son might ever suffer, or make others suffer... and if his life had sprung merely from some personal quest for fulfillment, I don't see how I could avoid that. Fortunately, though, the forces that led to his coming to be are much larger and deeper than me, so I need not take all the blame.

Nathan Smith

re: JM

Exactly right!


Isn't another life justified by itself?

Joyless Moralist

Each life is valuable in itself, sure. But there's still a problem here, and I think we can tease it out when we think of bearing and raising children as a "life project" without simultaneously thinking of it as an obligation proper to a particular state in life (specifically, the married state.) On the one hand, we can hardly *not* think of the raising of a family as a life project, when it takes such an enormous amount of energy, and also defines us to some degree (and also fulfills us) in the way that major life projects do.

On the other hand, we normally think it reprehensible to undertake a project for too trivial a reason, even if the thing being done is per se a good thing. So, for example, let's suppose (though obviously it's debatable) that it's good to be a soldier or a religious, and that these are worthwhile life projects. Nonetheless, if someone were to contemplate doing one of these things merely because he thought he'd look smart in the uniform or the cassock, we would probably urge him to reconsider. That isn't a sufficiently good reason for making such a weighty decision. Likewise if someone were planning on entering the military or religious life as a means of avoiding a test in school or a tiresome social function. The project might per se be a good one, but they're proving through their reasons that they don't give full credit to its gravity.

Well, here's the thing: in the case of having children, I don't think *any* reason could really be grave enough to justify it, if it were seen purely in terms of being a life project. We obviously are inclined to fault people if they explicitly admit to having children purely because their family/community wishes it, or because they think it would be fun to dress their baby in adorable designer clothes, or because they want to keep up with the Joneses and the Joneses had a fourth child so by golly they're going to have one too. None of those are sufficiently good reasons for bringing another life into the world. But -- this is my point -- *nothing* is really a sufficiently good reason, if we see the question purely in terms of *my life projects.* Because the person I beget is another being equal to myself, no purely personal motive could ever be good enough to justify the action. I think this particularly comes home to people when the children they beget end up having particularly miserable existences (like, say, suffering from terribly diseases or severe disabilities from early childhood.) The parents tend to feel guilty, in some cases, for bringing about such a miserable life in the first place.

On the other hand, if you see the begeting and raising of children as an obligatory part of a particular sort of life cycle, then you really don't have to worry about your particular motives, or about what sort of fulfillment you do or don't get from parenthood. It was never exactly your decision to begin with, and, as I said before, the forces that bring your children into being go way beyond yourself anyhow, so all you need do is try your best to properly appreciate, and discharge, your own role in the process.


If a soldier wants to become a soldier because she thinks her nation needs defense and thinks she might be good at it, I think we'd agree that was a good reason. Likewise a man who wants to save souls and thinks he might do so well in the role of a priest. In those cases their desire for the project is expressed significantly in terms of the goal of the project itself rather than distal values like the cut of ones uniform or the health benefits. These are both weighty things, which can involve sacrifice of several other obligations, such as the soldier's obligation to raise her children and the priest's obligation to (for the sake of argument) create economic goods in return for a living. Presumably, however, the weight of the task justifies the undertaking of it as a life project.

Anyway, if a person wants to raise a child because they want to bring a fully function being into the world and thinks they can do it well, that seems like an unimpeachable justification because it relates directly to the purpose of the task. I'm not sure what saying there's an obligation to some third party adds to the matter.

Nathan Smith

I'm with JM-- parenthood is too big a decision to be made on the basis of one's own desires or self-perceived abilities-- and Nato's remark sort of indirectly underlines this, for is any of us, after all, in a position to say that we can "do [parenthood] well?" We do our best, but fall well short, and the burden would be unbearable if one fully grasped the degree of responsibility involved and thought that it rested wholly on one's own shoulders rather than those of the Creator. But I'd note that in the case of the soldier and the priest, too, there's a need to be "called." In the case of the soldier, the calling is done by a government; in the case of a priest, it is traditionally considered the prerogative of God to do the calling. One has a *vocation* to the priesthood, not merely a desire or plan or option of being a priest.

JM also helps to show why I'm uneasy with what MS has to say. MS seems to regard children as an optional feature of marriage, but pre-contractible, morally if not legally. It's fine to be a childless couple, but one should know in advance what one is getting into. The couple should *talk* about it in advance. Two problems with this are (a) there could be a huge incentive for one person in a romance to lie, to the other or to themselves, about their desire for children, if the consequence of not having children is a breakup. And (b) humans just seem to be designed to do these things in a frenzy of romantic feelings akin to a prophetic vision such that practical details such as children would be unlikely to be discussed. I personally am well past the age for such flights of romantic fancy (a.k.a. Being In Love), and would be quite prepared to discuss family plans in an extremely rational manner on a first date, but I recognize that that's a function of my own failings and that Being In Love is a better and more natural way of doing things. So I don't think couples are likely to talk about children beforehand, at least not in the kind of sober and serious way that could be the basis for any sort of pre-contracting, and I'm not sure it would be a good thing for them to do so.

I think JM's argument also sheds light on why Nato's unease with having children being an obligation to a third party is both right and wrong. He's right that such an obligation would not, by itself, be a good enough reason to have kids. But JM's point is that personal preferences are not a good enough reason *not* to have kids. Fertility as an obligation to a spouse is a side-effect of fertility just being the right thing to do. To partake of the pleasures and comforts, to suffer the diversion of one's charitable activities from the human race to one single other person, without taking the opportunity to bring new life into the world, is a failure, a falling short, a sin. To deny this to one's spouse is to deny them something that is natural and right for them to enjoy, or suffer, and is to force them into a sin. It would be at most a minor mitigating circumstance if a couple had agreed beforehand to a childless marriage.

Childless marriage is not a sin I take it upon myself to judge in others, I should emphasize, but only one that I seek to avoid in my own life.

Nathan Smith

It also seems to mean that at a time when falling birthrates are a major menace to the future of mankind, the idea of childbearing as an obligation for married couples, to one's spouse, to society, to God, is one that is overdue for revival.


Ok--I can't let this go. First of all, I find it hard to believe that most couples contemplating marriage do not talk about whether or not they want children. These days, people get married later and have usually known their intended for a long time. It would be ridiculous NOT to talk about something so fundamental to marriage. Secondly, if you read the comments from a year ago on this post, I said then that I think the world works best when most people assume they will have children. This year I said that people should not make choices about having children based on purely pragmatic thinking--it will cost too much, other people's children are annoying--and the like. Having children is one of those things that you only appreciate fully once you do it. I happen to agree with JM that there is a kind of obligation to have children. I'm a Christian, so I believe the obligation to multiply and replenish the earth comes from God. That said, I do recognize that freedom and the ability to make one's own choices--even wrong choices--are important, so I'm not going to condemn people who choose not to have children. Well, unless it were my own children!!!!!

Joyless Moralist

Obviously I also think having children (or trying) is obligatory for the married, but I can't agree that discussing it is necessarily unromantic. It doesn't have to be conducted like a negotiation. My husband and I talked about our future family often before our marriage, imagining the things we would teach them, places we'd take them, and so on. It was part of our eagerness to begin our life together.

But on the other point, I'd add to what Nathan said that, when we become parents, we don't get to put limits on how much we're willing to put up with, or what we think we can stand. The order is nothing less than unconditional love through whatever circumstances. The person who says, "I should have kids; I'd be a good parent" may find themselves plunged into a world of doubt if, say, a child is severely disabled. Can anyone reasonably say they're ready for any and all circumstances that might arise? That seems absurd.

Fortunately, on my reading, we don't have to say that. We have children because that's what married people are supposed to do. And then we do our best to raise them. But we need never try to support the ridiculous illusion that we're totally in control of the experiment.

Nathan Smith

re: "Ok--I can't let this go. First of all, I find it hard to believe that most couples contemplating marriage do not talk about whether or not they want children. These days, people get married later and have usually known their intended for a long time. It would be ridiculous NOT to talk about something so fundamental to marriage."

Well, I'm not sure MS, JM and I disagree here. JM writes: "It doesn't have to be conducted like a negotiation." That's the point. Conversations about children will occur, but nothing about the way the marriage is later understood should depend too much on the content of those conversations. People vary, but a couple in love is likely to remember their whole courtship as a sort of dream or enchantment. It's no time for negotiations. Fortunately the contract doesn't need to be negotiated, it's already been prepared by God and written in human nature and lovers just have to accept it and then fulfill its terms. I approve of JM's reminiscences but not everyone possesses her propensity or capacity for discussion, and inarticulate people can marry too! She's right that discussing children doesn't have to be unromantic, but if one doesn't have the capacity for abstract discussion it seems like it would be hard to do it, because one knows so little about what one's children will turn out like. And there could be a downside to discussing children if you start making plans for your kids which then become burdens for them later, molds you try to fit them into that don't work, or expectations that they will find hard to fulfill. But anyway, what I'm really against isn't for dating couples to discuss kids, but for them to discuss it as a negotiation in the sense that the marriage is conditional on it, because it would put couples under a damaging kind of pressure and to regard any agreements made through such conversations as either non-binding or binding is problematic. It might be a necessary evil in a time when a lot of people don't have appropriate ideas about marriage and you have to make sure your future spouse does, but it would be better if the culture coordinated expectations about marriage and family and this job weren't left to couples in love.


"First of all, I find it hard to believe that most couples contemplating marriage do not talk about whether or not they want children. These days, people get married later and have usually known their intended for a long time. It would be ridiculous NOT to talk about something so fundamental to marriage."

Indeed. If I were a marriage counselor and discovered a couple haven't yet discussed something as fundamental as plans for children with each-other, I wouldn't just prompt them to discuss it, I would be strongly inclined to advise them to postpone the marriage somewhat entirely while they get to know each other better. Baldly put, I would regard that as prima facie evidence that they were still 'merely' infatuated rather than entered into an enduring love of each other as whole people.

"The person who says, "I should have kids; I'd be a good parent" may find themselves plunged into a world of doubt if, say, a child is severely disabled"

It seems that what JM wants from the obligatory nature of childrearing is absolution for all the setbacks and personal failings that inevitably come with even the most assiduous attempt to raise children well. I think that's probably a good way for society to look at it, and helps parents live with their imperfections, but neither do I want an obligation insensible of everyone's personal circumstances. I've known people who don't want children because they think they would be bad parents. In many cases I thought they were selling themselves short and in others I agreed, but I definitely don't want people becoming parents without considering if they have a real shot at discharging the obligation acceptably.

And in the end, I want parents inclined always to see their children as gifts rather than burdens.


Life being what it is, sometimes you will see them as gifts and sometimes as burdens. Ultimately, I know no parents who say they wish they hadn't had their kids, but every parent I know has had that thought occasionally!

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