Postmodern Conservative

Choosing Pleasure Over Kids?

So Damon Linker, who’s at his best when he’s a friendly critic of the creeping and often creepy libertarianism of our time, wonders whether people who intentionally choose not to have kids really know what they’re doing.

In his view, they think they’re choosing for pleasure. That means, says the philosophically literate Damon, that they’re choosing to be Epicureans.

But that’s not so clear: The Epicurean is a rational person who lives beyond hope and fear. He finds happiness in the “serenity now” that comes through philosophic liberation from all the common prejudices people have concerning immortality — including, of course, living on through your kids. The relational life of the Epicurean is with his philosophic friends, with whom he (or she) doesn’t have babies.

The most compelling view of the happy (or, better, unalienated) life to come was actually given by the philosopher Marx. It’s a vision that doesn’t include philosophers (partly perhaps because everyone would be wise with very little effort). You’re able to do whatever you want whenever you want. You can rear sheep without being a shepherd (the name for an alienating job with which you must be obsessed each day to earn a livelihood, like it or not), criticize without being a critic (another profession), and so forth. Happiness is the unobsessive life of the hobbyist who doesn’t have to work for a living. Being unobsessive, Marx doesn’t emphasize, also means being unmoved by love and unstuck with kids. So under communism not only does society somehow regulate production without bothering particular persons, it somehow raises the kids without bothering anyone too. And philosophy, of course, consumes all the time of obsessive maniacs across time and space — including Epicureans. Someone who criticizes without the discipline of being a critic doesn’t rise to the pay grade of Epicurean (or Socratic or Kantian etc.). Marx’s communism is basically the same as Socrates’ democracy — an imaginary place where people are serious about not taking anything seriously. They become, as Tocqueville observes about the Americans, so serious about their enjoyments that they lose it when anyone tries to convince them that promiscuous hedonism isn’t the bottom line.

The easiest and best criticism is not the one given by many libertarian economists: The libertarians remind us that, to live that life full of diverse enjoyments, you’ll still have to some of the alienation of having to work. Tyler Cowen’s future of gaming depends on people remaining immensely productive manipulators of genius machines.

The easiest and best criticism is that people won’t be able to live unobsessively if they continue to know that they’re going to die. People will probably, having been deprived of the compensations of parenthood, citizenship, creatureliness, and philosophy, be more death-haunted — and so more screwed up — than ever. So someone might say that the birth dearth is less about a mistaken view of happiness than about the obsessive resolution not to think of oneself as a being to be replaced. There’s not a lot of serenity now these days.

That’s why the most self-conscious of our futurists are so often very serious transhumanists. They are working for a world in which there will be no birth because there will be no more death.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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