Why have children? This has always struck me as a bizarre question, but I can recall in the late 1960s--as zero population growth and feminism coincided in their strident ideologies--that many of my earnestly intellectual acquaintances asked this question. And pushed it sincerely. That the culmination of love between men and women in the bearing of children, and the biological reproduction of ourselves, should become ethically problemmatic to an entire class of educated, secularized youth signalled, so I always believed, widespread moral and personal confusion.
As a question--"why have children?--was a free effect of technology. Modern science provided the oral contraceptive to women, and the fact that they did not have to bear children, as a consequence of intercourse, permitted the query; even more, impelled them to ask why they should. A generation which so ably sorted out the relation between technology and ethics in warfare in their criticism of the Vietnan War, was completely unable to sort it out when the question applied to themselves--to their conveniences. I [believe?] we are always morally blind when our own interests are involved.
The question was never a vital or real one to me. It has never occurred to me that individuals do NOT have a right to reproduce themselves, and to do so completely free of governmental interference. If this freedom makes me "conservative" on this question: so be it.
But I have, at the same time, been intrigued by the question, partly because it was unavoidable; for years, there was scarcely a party during which the question was not heatedly raised. Recently, my and E_'s decision to have a child has awoken memories of that debate. I have discovered that the question can be asked in a new way. L_ wanted to know, as the new variant goes: "If I am a career person, and, if I cannot [read: do not think I will make the effort to] devote the time to raise a child, why should I?"
Happily, she has found in herself the need to have a child and so joined me in making the commitment. Still, what answer does one give? The question may be ultimately meaningless ethically--if everyone did not reproduce, human life would cease with current generations. But in the tortured context of our era, so many souls are misguided and convinced of their rationality, that an honorable person cannot refuse to try to answer the question. And answer it so as to try to persuade them.
I found that persons who think they should not, in that aggressive sense, have children, generally were not open to rational argument. And they did not appreciate having pointed out that they were confusing technological possiblility for moral obligation.
So after a time, my interest in the question became only personal: why do I want children? What is the connection between desire and need, if there is such a connection at all, beyond the purely natural--hormonal--drive to reproduce?
Asking the question of myself, I have discovered over the years, an answer. Or rather, answers. And I have been surprised to discover that these answers touch close [to] the very meaning of myself as a moral being.
For a long time, my question settled itself upon a simple fact of my emotional nature, or upon what I thought to be a simple fact. That personally, I feared death--or hated death--and felt within me a powerful drive to defeat death: to assert myself as life against death and death-dealing in the world around me. It was, as if having successfully passed through [emotional turmoil] in adolescence, and not succombed [succumbed] to that continual flirtation and testing [...], I rebounded strongly to push back the forces of death that had pressed in upon me: to push back laziness, entropy, disinterest, mediocrity, and mere repetition of forms: all the manifestations of death in our hearts and in society. To assert life against death was not merely to live, but to live forward, to live with a vision of excellence, and to live right.
While this realization of my essential moral nature grew in me, at the same time, I slowly perceived that this moral nature was part of a larger moral plan in me--a larger moral movement in my life. So that my deep desire and love for children was not merely to increase the battalions of the living or keep at a distance my own mortality, but to accomplish a larger objective in living.
I think I now understand the psychological origins and genesis of this plan, and of its various ingredients, so I can speak it out and know the shape it takes.
I am convinced, I believed, at the central core of my heart, that the future of mankind is in doubt. As a simple fact: we have the means of great--if not universal--nuclear destruction, and there is little evidence that we have the wisdom to avoid this fate. So the moral question of the societies of the northern hemisphere is to construct, or to find, meaning for themselves against the probability of this fate. Against the probability of a fate larger than mere personal death and suffering and smaller than the Christian mythology of an apocalyptical end of the world and second coming and judgment.
Of course: this vision is too horrorifying [horrifying] to contemplate. And because we--Western society--do not contemplate it, we do not prepare ourselves for it. Even lack of preparation is not a deliberate choice, but a path of avoiding thinking about it. The probability of nuclear holocost [holocaust] raises--as life and death do, anyway--the question, how shall we live, in view of the real possibility of the end of man?
But this social question of how to live is more than the question of how to live when we are faced with our individual deaths. For nuclear war is an end, not only to ourselves personally, but to our progeny, our future generations. So our choice of living and dying is not for ourselves alone, but [for] all who follow us. We choose for all mankind, in a sense.
The question of how shall we live, as we live for all mankind (Kant's categorical imperative turned interrogatory), can be asked in a variety of ways.
I choose to ask this question in the following way. When I choose to act for myself, I may choose, if I please, to throw away the opportunity to make my actions meaningful, as long as I do not imply anything to anyone else in so doing. If I choose [...] to commit suicide, this suicide is a private act, implying nothing for men in general.
Choosing to do nothing or to do something about all mankind in view of a nuclear termination--an atomic suicide--is not, in contrast, a private act. For I am choosing also for others. Social suicide is not a private act.
Now, supposing that mankind should be chosen by me to die in a nuclear suicide, what question would they ask of me, supposing I could make such a decision?
They would ask, if they could, in the final moments of society's existence, as the white fire-ball of nuclear death rolls over the West, why have I done this? What meaning for their lives have I imposed on them by making this choice for them?
Or (generally--I suuppose--), what does it mean for mankind--for Western civilization in the northern hemisphere--to die by nuclear suicide? What did the life of Western culture mean, if this was its result?
Or--what does man mean, in view of his capacity, indeed the probability, because [of] his lack of wisdom, for nuclear suicide?
Or--how will we turn out? Will we pass through this awful time?
What does this have to do with having children? From this perspective, having children is necessary--desired--in order to provide another generation to answer the question, whether mankind means anything?
I feel--from the deepest part of my being--the necessity to create children, teach them the basic values, to give them the message of men's choice, in order to perpetuate my--theirs--our opportunity to learn whether "all this" means anything.
I feel as if Western man, Western society, were a sinking ship, and the act of having children were the act of putting a few chosen persons into lifeboats. Set adrift in the lifeboats, with limited rations and no compass, they may not survive. But--then again--and this is the hope--they may. And they may--this is the further hope--survive long enough and in a way to discover or to create the meaning of life and history of man in general.
Children are "giving ourselves one more chance" to find meaning.
Children are "one last opportunity" to learn the answer to the dying man's question: Was love enough? Was it enough for Western man to have lived that he should have discovered the ideal of love, or any ideal at all?
And, of course, only children can answer this question for us. Because the answer must be given by someone else to us, by the future to the past. "Yes, love was enough, because your love was what gave us the opportunity to answer your query." That is the answer we hope to hear.
I know the origins of this long emotional fantasy. From my earliest childhood I have had recurrent dreams and daytime fantasies about nuclear war, with me as a lone, or among a band of lone, survivors. These fantasies--after the horror of the vision of violence and destruction from nuclear war has passed--reduce themselves to the following scenario:
Home destroyed. The landscape a burned and charred wasteland. With a few other persons, I wander the landscape in search of other survivors. At evening campfire, the circle of light in the blear night, the small band of survivors struggles to keep alive the values of Western life itself: the supreme value of the individual life, of love, of the opportunity to discover or to create meaningful life by free choice to act. Life, liberty, and love. To maintain these values in the midst of disease, of radiation sickness, of death, of the sterile landsape, of man's effort at collective suicide is an act of assertion and faith. An act of faith. If Western man had these values and still chose to enter war, were these the right values? The band of survivors cannot know of course. They can only struggle on and hope that later they, or their children, will discover the answer.
This fantasy in itself has numerous external roots. Fundamentally, of course, it is a Hebraic, Old Testament, fantasy: Amidst destruction and fleeing a cursed home, Moses led his band in the desert wilderness, always with the hope that the agony he and his people felt would be justified by some answer from the angry god as to the purpose of their travail, and perhaps rewarded by a promised land.
Despite the promise of Jesus and the message of Christianity, one strong, hebraic element in American protestantism repeats that Old Testament vision: Man lost, man struggling to maintain moral purity, man hoping to learn--some day--the meaning of all this suffering. Ultimately the meaning of their lives reduces to the question whether they have been chosen for salvation.
This protestant-Hebraic theme has been a strong element in the science fiction literature and movies of the post-war years, of the belief in UFOs, and of television.
For me, all this has taken a strange twist. For fundamentally, I am not a Christian. I don't have any gut-level feeling that Jesus answered the question. Yet, I do feel the question. So I am left in the situation of the Old Testment.
Put somewhat differently, the large moral framework I feel within me, which makes meaningful the assertion of life against death, is the secular version of a religious myth. We create children to perpetuate our status as survivors, in the hope that we shall learn, or learn how to make, meaning of our existence. Having a child is more than a culmination of biology, more than the result of adult love. Having a child is the culmination of our lives as human beings with consciousness. Having a child is providing the opportunity for the future to answer the questions of the past. We ask, is love enough? Is it enough to live and assert life against death? But these are questions the questioner cannot answer. Only some one else can answer. And if it is love that creates another being, then that person--our children, the children of mankind--can answer (so we hope): yes, because love brought us.
The answer to the question, whether it is better to have lived and struggled against death, than to have yielded to suicide, can only be answered by some one else. And by giving that person the opportunity to answer, we are a long-way to getting the answer we want: yes.
In the face of western man's preoccupation with death and probability of suicide, to have children is to hurl the future out of the past, to give us the possibility of answering our question and affirming those values and ideals which are the fullest and best expression of our moral being.