A friend of mine is decidedly against having children. I once asked him what, in terms of social function, was the difference between him and his wife as a couple and and a monogamous homosexual couple? He couldn’t come up with anything, and I can see why.
It’s hard to say much of substance when it comes to a difference in how they conduct themselves within society as a couple. Neither produce children. Both are monogamous. Both provide support to the parties of the relationship. All else equal, nearly every occupation can be performed as well by each of the four of them. It’s difficult to identify much of substance qua childless heterosexuals and qua monogamous homosexuals preventing them from making equal contributions to the world.
But why this comparison? Both demographic groups cover a growing part of the social population, groups that we haven’t seen much of in the history of the world as far back as we can study it. To be sure, there’s always been homosexual couples and there have always been unmarried childless couples, but never have they made up such large percentages of households. It’s common knowledge that homosexuality was practiced in Greek and Roman societies, and though the extent of it in these cultures is debatable, it’s widely agreed that homosexual practice very rarely involved homosexuals living together, raising children together, and desiring to marry one another. A man might have sexual relations with another man (or a boy, as the case may be), but he still had a wife or desired one, and still sought to produce and raise children with his wife — generally speaking, of course.
Deliberate childlessness and homosexual coupling on such a wide scale are a remarkably unique cultural phenomena, and we have to wonder what explains these shifts. Why are so many people now living life in ways that are virtually unheard of in human history, and what prevented people from living life in these ways in the past? How did Western society come to possess these ideals of deliberate childlessness and homosexual coupling? Why the change?
Ask this question to most Christian conservatives, and you’ll hear a moral explanation — a tale about the general decline in overall moral values in the West. Western nations have become a much more immoral and dangerous place than they were in previous generations, they’ll tell you. But why think that? Have Western nations really suffered sharp moral decline? It depends on what you look at. But general more decay? That’s far from clear.
It doesn’t take much to debunk the general moral decay theory. Violent crime rates are down in America decade over decade. Abortion rates — which conservatives care about deeply — continue to decline as well. For generations in the West, we enslaved people of certain races — presumably the same generations that those who hold the general moral decay theory regard as far more moral than present generations. We stole them from their countries and forced them into labor, and most members of these societies didn’t have a moral problem with it. Today it is nearly universally understood that to enslave someone is immoral. The fact is, there are many ways in which we have improved morally.
A better explanation of our current choices on family and sexuality holds that with changes in technology in general and reproductive technology in particular, we have removed or mitigated many of the consequences that would otherwise result from such behavior. With our technological changes to the world come social changes by freeing people to make choices that previous generations largely couldn’t afford to make.
As we will see, the actual story of the path to these historically-unique social behaviors is much more complex without any need to appeal to a sharpening decline in morals.
In previous generations, a man’s motivation for finding a wife was perfectly reasonable. He needed one because he needed children, and he needed children largely because he needed the benefit of their labor as they aged. He needed them to provide for him in his old age. They were his retirement plan, and a woman needed a husband for these same reasons. Childbearing was an important part of one’s survival — especially into old age. But a woman needed a husband for additional reasons as well. She needed him to protect her from other men. In a far less technological age than our own, she needed his superior physical strength to labor for wages and for the building and maintenance of their domicile. Depending on the particular culture, she might need him for his agility in hunting and farming and for his strength in controlling powerful domesticated animals used for food, transportation, and farming. How else could she have these things without a husband?
And since he was busy with the things that she does not do as well as he does, he needed her to provide domestic care to him and his children. Each provided what the other could not provide for themselves, or certainly not as well. In this environment, the differences between a man and a woman were apparent. Ideas of gender fluidity would have been nearly unthinkable in ancient societies because the natural differences were obvious and necessary in this context.
Divorce was uncommon not primarily because of altruism but because of inconvenience. Breaking up the home was costly to both parties’ future survival. So why not work it out?
Philosopher Roger Scruton writes that “Marriage kept the sexes at such a distance from each other that their coming together became an existential leap.” No longer. The sexes have been brought together. The existential leap has been reduced to a gap the size of a mere biological nudge.
Fast forward to today to witness the contrast. Within the structure of Western culture, does a man or a woman need children to thrive? Not usually. In fact, the opposite may be true, or at least is regarded to be true among many. Children are a financial and social burden. Whereas there was once a time when they quickly became assets in helping provide for the family needs in the business and in the home, now they require that someone else labor additionally hard to provide for them through the entirety of their childhood. They’re in a holding tank for eighteen years gobbling up resources with the prospect that perhaps they will one day become producers. Yet when they do become producers, the parents are rarely the financial beneficiaries of their labor. Parents almost never receives a financial return on their investment. It should be no surprise then that men and women are increasingly making the choice to remain childless.
If men and women have less use for children than in the past, they have even less use for one another – even apart from the matter of children. Technology has leveled the playing field in such a way that there are few jobs that a man can do that a woman cannot. Thus, in a world where muscle power is less necessary to get ahead, a woman can do just as well as a man in providing a living for herself, and in society with a service industry that can provide a bevy of domestic services, a man doesn’t need a woman to keep a home for him. Who needs a wife to cook? Taco Bell is open past midnight. Furthermore, with fewer working hours and household appliances, he may do these domestic services for himself with relative ease. This is love and marriage in the twenty-first century.
A marriage counselor once told me that he could save any marriage if he could just drop the man and the woman in the wilderness with minimal supplies. They’d have to rely on each other to survive. They would quickly find the priority of their pet peeves take a back seat to survival. Each of them may feel like killing the other, but they probably wouldn’t for no other reason than that they need the other. Consider that this scenario is closer to the environment of marriage for most of human history than it is to the modern technological environment of our marriages, and perhaps you’ll begin to see better why Western marriages are in their current state.
So why is the family structure that’s been in place for millennia going away? Because it just isn’t as necessary for a person as it once was. We took ourselves out of the wilderness, and each of us can fare better on our own than ever before.
The wilder the world, the more a man and a woman need each other to survive. Domesticate nature and we each become more socially independent. With that, much of the past appeal of the opposite sex diminishes in culture.
The social implications of technological change is something that the Amish understand. Most of us in the West pushed for and adopted these new technologies without much thought beyond questions like “will it make my life easier in the immediate?” and “will it entertain me?” This understanding does not entail a need for a cultural anti-technology bent, but it does mean we need to consider more carefully the social tradeoffs of ever modifying the natural world. How far do we want to go? What are the goals? Is technology all advantage? What do our gains in one area cost us in another?
Of course, we’ll always have heterosexual marriage and childbearing, but, as we are only now beginning to witness, fewer and fewer will make these choices and the character of those relationships will not be the same.
Technology is concerned with modifying the natural world (where “natural world” is understood as the untouched world as humankind finds itself in it) because living as a human in the natural world is hard. So we modify it in order to escape it’s harshness. We do this in all kinds of ways, great and small. With DVR we overcome time, with the Internet we overcome space, and with fossil fuels we overcome the suffering of temperature extremes. But all of this adds up to an artificial world that is radically different from the natural world.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that humans behave so differently in such a different environment than they behave in a natural environment. For thousands of years, across cultures, religions, races and times, people had marriage and men were in authority over women, and gender distinction across these very different cultures was relatively the same. Why was it this way? Why were these diverse societies so nearly unanimous on the importance of childbearing and the importance of gender distinction? No proletariat needed to enforce these views on each person. The natural order demanded it. But with our creation of an artificial world, we have largely eliminated the natural environment in which the ideas of the past made their greatest sense. Of course, society didn’t set out to change the extent to which men and women need children and one another. We just wanted longer and easier lives, but with our collective choices to radically alter our living environment come unintended and unforeseen consequences.
Among those unforeseen consequences is that many of the cultural factors that drove men to choose women and women to choose men have been lost. We have afforded men and women the opportunity to make relationship choices that most of them in previous centuries could not afford to make. So, in our current cultural context where a man and a woman have little need for the opposite sex to thrive in life, one’s choice of a man or a woman comes down largely to an attraction preference. A man has the social option of following a sexual attraction to another man without all of the natural costs of the past. If the two of them want children, reproductive technology has made this far easier than it would be just decades ago. No wonder then that so many now think that the only thing holding a same-sex couple back from living successful lives together is residual social and religious hangups. Whereas nature itself would have once been the greatest challenge to life as homosexual, this is less and less the case as we overcome those obstacles.
In our modern world where we have eliminated so much of the previous need for gender distinction, opposition to gay marriage becomes marginalized to arguments which only make sense on certain religious presupposition. One might oppose homosexuality and gay marriage working from natural law, but these arguments only become less convincing as we move further away from nature toward an artificial world.
Conservatives are expecting people to make traditional family choices but are not willing to give up the modern changes that encourages them against these choices. To be sure, some will resist the encouragement, but most will not. And so conservatives have turned largely to legal forces to control choices that were once controlled by natural forces. I’m not sure we can have it both ways. I don’t see how we can technologically eliminate much of the driving forces that compelled people to marry the opposite sex, have children, and remain together and reasonably expect that people will still make these choices.
Sociologists are abuzz with ideas on why millennials are behaving so differently from their parents. But when their world looks so different from the world their parents grew up in, this surely has to figure into the explanation. To make so many radical adjustments to nature produces radical consequences in the behavior of those living in their severely modified environment — often in unexpected ways.
A prominent question remains, however, on whether the traditional family is held together by permanent truths which will push back against our changes or whether the traditional family is a family that works better in something closer to a natural environment and with less success in our current modern world.
My money is on nature having the last word. Maintaining the heavily-modified world in which we live requires us to keep a lot of plates spinning. We may make short-term gains in creating our technological Eden, but nature plays the long game.