On Parenthood Part 2. Voluntary Childlessness and the Good Life

As I pointed out in Part 1, the debate about the impact of having children on well-being or life-satisfaction is ongoing in our cultural conversation. This is surely due to the fact that for many, especially among the educated upper class, becoming a parent is now an option rather than a taken for granted life-stage, and a highly deliberate and reflexive decision. Like many of my friends who benefited from the democratization of higher education, my partner and I came in relatively late in the game of making and raising children. She was 34 and I was 36 when we had our first one. My perspective on parenthood is different from my younger cousin who lives in the countryside and who had her kids more than 10 years before me. A significant number of adults decide for a variety of reasons to be childless, and some on both sides of the existential fence enjoy discussing the respective value of both lifestyles.

The Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh recently penned an incendiary column on elective childlessness. According to him, we live in the Age of the Child. That’s probably news to those who watched the documentary No Sex Please, We’re Japanese or who are aware of the fertility rate in Italy, but let’s put that aside. Ganesh’s point is that our politics and our culture are pedocentric.

The welfare state, he writes, “is disproportionately a resource for parents. Child benefit, subsidised childcare and the like constitute a prodigious transfer of money from non-parents to parents.” The blind spot in Ganesh’s provocation is the fact that children are also collective assets. A society competing in the knowledge economy wants to see classrooms full from elementary school to university. It is of course hard to have a vibrant economy when the population is declining. So, no one denies that there is redistribution from non-parents to parents. The question is whether such transfers are fair and justified. And I would be very interested to know why he believes that the collective aspiration to give “every child the best start in life […] does not even make sense in theory.” I do not know what his political philosophy is; perhaps it is the kind of libertarianism that does not value equality of opportunity.

Ganesh seems to be pushing the envelope a bit when he says that “voluntary childlessness may be the one lifestyle of which we have actually become less tolerant,” but maybe there is a lack of recognition and social esteem for the childless. Although I am a parent, I am often exasperated by politicians who seem to reduce the body of citizens to “middle-class families.” Single adults and childless couples count just as much and need to have a political voice. Point taken.

He then goes on to say that the “childfree are short-changed by culture as much as by politics.” In the realm of cultural representations, those who do not have a progeny would be depicted as antisocial, affectless, nihilistic, egocentric and, why not, prone to psychopathy. Meursault—the very atypical and not very credible main character of Camus’ L’étranger—and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho are picked out as the archetypes of the childless. This is precious. Fiction provides an infinite repertoire of characters and types; it is always possible to find an example that fits with the story that we want to tell. One can tell a very different story about the moral elevation of parenthood and family life by drawing on Franzen’s Freedom or on Mad Men. I watched The Wolf of Wall Street the last time I was on a plane; Leornardo DiCaprio’s character had a wife and a son if I’m not mistaken.


Leaving politics and culture aside, what I found the most irritating in Ganesh’s piece is the naïve Nietzscheism that suffuses his more philosophical argument. In his magnanimous moments, he sees in parenthood an understandable flight from the cold and disenchanted world we, Moderns, inhabit. Contra Part 1, parenthood is not “trauma”, but a safe haven, when you really think about it:

The best case for parenthood is the most modest. It is no more “meaningful” or “social” than the alternative lifestyle but it can be more soothing. A happy family is a haven in an impersonal universe. In Don DeLillo’s career-making novel White Noise, Murray Suskind, a cynical college professor with a theory about everything, postulates that the family is the “cradle of the world’s misinformation”. We are “fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts” and so we form families to protect us by “sealing off the world.” … It is not necessary to go all the way with the professor on this one to sense that there is something of the flight to safety in the nesting instinct. To form a family is to retreat into something.

Let’s disregard the fact that I never worried so much in my entire life than since I became a parent. I want to reassure Ganesh that parenthood did not alter my belief that the external world is indifferent to my own fate; that the universe, as he puts it, is impersonal. Although hanging out with kids a lot will make you look at the world with wonder more often, it does not re-enchant it. Especially not when your latte cools down or your Old-Fashioned is spilled. How soothing.

As Charles Taylor explains in A Secular Age, many of us live within what he calls an “immanent frame”—our basic worldview is not structured around a pure or radical form of transcendence. We try to create value for ourselves, or to find it in this world. This can be through raising children who need to be prepared for life, through espousing causes that go beyond our narrow self-interest or through contributing to the advancement of art or science. These values and commitments are not mutually exclusive.

Having children doesn’t have to be about coping with horror vacui; it can mostly be about wanting to pass on the opportunity to live a good life, to transmit values that you cherish, to see what it is to care about dependent beings that you have brought into this world, to take on a new vertiginous responsibility, and to add one or more hugely significant others to your life. Opium of the people, really? I find it hard to think that parenthood is more of a cushy refuge than “art, travel, cuisine, sport, sex that signifies nothing but its own pleasure, conversation with friends that works towards no practical purpose” and all these “ludic” goodies that are easier to enjoy “without the constraints of family.” Much more needs to be said to show that going childfree is the “ultimate immersion in life.”


It doesn’t help that Ganesh is working with a desperately impoverished conception of the life and identities of parents:

But it also means our familial duty supersedes our duty to anything or anyone outside. The ancient Greeks had the same worry, that reproduction dangerously narrowed a man’s obligations from serving the demos to serving only his family. It is why they saw a kind of civic virtue in homosexuality. For them, the social contract was between people living there and then – not, as Edmund Burke had it two millennia later, between successive generations.

Being a parent is for many of us the most important commitment in our life. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only one. As already pointed out, the basic challenge for many of us is to reconcile our multiple values, roles, aims and commitments. I did not stop being a friend, an academic and a concerned citizen the moment I became a parent.

(By the way, although it is not my field of expertise, I’ve been told a different story about Ancient Greece. It is true that domestic life (oikos) was not seen as the sphere of fulfilment and flourishing. Civic participation and, even better, philosophical contemplation were the activities through which one could best flourish and lead a truly good life. But given that domesticity was mainly the business of women and slaves, having a household with children didn’t prevent Greek men from “serving the demos.” And if homosexuality was seen as normal—although demeaning for the “passive partner,” according to Martha Nussbaum—it didn’t replace heterosexual marriage.)


As an academic philosopher I am a “liberal egalitarian.” This is not, alas, a very original position among political philosophers located in the anglo-american tradition. But one of our commitments is that the state should somehow try to be neutral with regard to life-plans and conceptions of the good life endorsed by individuals. Public norms and institutions should be grounded in a political conception of justice rather than in a comprehensive conception of the good life. As I summarized in my post on J.S. Mill, it is up to citizens, seen as persons capable of moral agency, to make their own choices about what is a meaningful and successful life. From that perspective, Ganesh is pretty much kicking down a door that is already open.

I wholeheartedly believe that one can lead a rich and admirable life without being a parent. One can be a selfish, narrow-minded and environmentally irresponsible parent or an altruistic and common good-oriented childless person. Most of us have complex identities and conceptions of the good life, and some of us add parenthood to the mix. It could only make the cultural conversation more interesting if we could avoid being reductive with regard to those who make different existential choices from our own.

Okay, enough with the chatter on parenthood. Off for a week of fun with the kids and friends in the countryside. Back with the usual public affairs programming upon my return.

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