I’m getting really, really tired of the steady drumbeat of hand-wringing from far too many people about the fact that more people are remaining single instead of getting married, many of whom also don’t have kids. 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. Benjamin Schwartz does it again in a review of a book on the subject.
Individuals don’t transfer values from one generation to the next. Individuals are biologically incapable of producing a next generation except in the crudest possible sense of the term. Socialization—the process through which a person internalizes what is good and bad, meaningful and meaningless—is shaped by one’s relatives, the friends and associates who surround a person, and typically a canon of texts that is revered and consulted for guidance. The values of expressive individualism guarantee that the values of future generations will be more or less up for grabs for the simple reason that expressive individualists have a difficult time replicating (the demographic data don’t lie) and an even more difficult time socializing a child.
It’s true that expressive individualists do connect with one another for varying periods of time and do at least fairly often have children. But the deliberately atomistic quality of their value system makes it difficult for these children to understand, let alone continue, whatever moral traditions their parents may affirm and display. In this respect, today’s expressive individualists bear some comparison to a 19th-century millennial sect called the Harmony Society. Founded in Germany in 1785, the Harmonists were a Protestant community that flourished in Indiana between 1825 and 1850. At the time, its members were known for their social conscience and economic success. Yet these virtues weren’t enough to ensure the sect’s survival for one simple reason: It promoted celibacy. The Harmonists, like today’s expressive individualists, were ethical, hardworking, productive people, but their way of life proved unsustainable because their values failed to foster successor generations…
Nonetheless, American individualism seems to have been fed a rich diet in recent decades. That diet has consisted of both the general infusion of market-fundamentalist metaphors in our social and intellectual life and by a range of technological innovations. Both phenomena threaten to deplete stock of social capital. Individualism has come to mean no limits on our freedom of maneuver, no obligations arising from a shared history, community and culture. As a matter of objective and, yes, quantitatively measurable reality, we are indeed “going solo”, and most Americans seem to be fine with that—as the generally positive reception of Klinenberg’s book seems to reflect.
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.
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 fuck off.