fertility false consciousness

so, Jim wrote recently about the cause of population decline: in a word, educating females. writing’s on the wall:

Schooling                                                        Children
No schooling                                                        6.67
Islamic Schooling, no Western Schooling        7.78
Western Schooling to ages 7 to 11                     4.5
Western Schooling to ages 12 to 13                  1.44
Western Schooling to ages 15 to 16                   1.57
Western Schooling to age 17 and above          1.50

I still pretty readily experience liberal-progressive reactions to things, and so I want to explain to you what these statistics look like to a prog and, moreover, why that particular interpretation is problematic.

the prog explanation is that un- and under-educated women either literally cannot keep themselves from having more babies than they want (due to difficulties in obtaining or using reliable contraceptive methods), or that they used to think they wanted a bunch of kids but education helped them to correct that belief.

in other words, progs assume that less-educated women are suffering from a kind of fertility false consciousness. if the only thing life has to offer them is kids, then they’ll take a large helping, but as soon as you “empower” / “enlighten” / “open doors” for women, they choose anything but.

notice prog types also believe that characteristics of people and features of institutions are deeply “socially constructed.” especially gender roles. although progs mostly allow that men and women might be a little different innately on average and at the margins, the cause of most of our apparent differences is nurture. a society which treats men and women very differently reaps what it sows: men and women who are very different. this is morally unacceptable because a person deserves to be treated as the tabula rasa she is: a self-determined and autonomous creature ultimately of her own (not society’s) making.

so here’s my question to the fertility false consciousness-type progressive: if we take some human female raw material, and split them into into two groups, leaving one alone and coercively subjecting the other to years if not decades of increasingly value-laden instruction, and find that these two groups have different preferences regarding children. which practice has done more to respect the autonomy and innate preferences of those women? and which might be thought, prima facie and ceteris paribus, to have (wrongly) “constructed” some non-native preferences?

to be fair, part of this depends on what you think the purpose of education is. I know sadly more about this bizarro corner of academia than I care to admit, but basically you have a few competing camps (with overlap): educating for happiness, educating for flourishing, educating for the social good, and so on. progressives, being strangely both individualistic and collectivistic, won’t do themselves any favors in defending on these grounds because women don’t individually seem to be that happy post-education-revolution and society is in many respects functioning less well than it used to, with respect to the family.

now, I don’t necessarily accept the conclusion that we should stop educating females. it’s difficult to deny that a certain level of education (probably middle school levels of literacy and math) is a huge gain to most women themselves as they function in their everyday lives, and to the children who they raise (either directly, from being taught by mom, or indirectly from her being able to do more for and with them). the fertility drop from that level of education is, then, morally less questionable, because it trades off for substantial value – it’s a choice we might even argue that hypothetical autonomous agents would make for themselves, ex-ante.

my (admittedly possibly non-representative) impression from reading mainstream media accounts of educating girls in undeveloped countries is that they feel left out from learning how to read and such, because it’s clear that that would help them do the thing that they (*and* their brothers, incidentally) seem most to want to do: “help the family.” a few exceptional underprivileged girls (and boys) go on to become engineers or whatever. but, noticeably, basically no one reports that they aspire to a hedonistic DINK (dual income, no kids) lifestyle until after they’ve been put through the education machine. this observation is only non-suspect to those who assume from the get-go that (especially higher) education is an unalloyed good.

if anyone’s suffering from fertility false consciousness, it’s the very same college-graduated elites who want you to think that the most plausible and significant explanation for highly-fertile families is ignorance. they have been educated and enculturated out of even being able to imagine that sacrificing for the growing family is something that normal humans would often like to do, and something from which they derive meaning. displace some of your pity for under-educated girls onto them.


that’s not how norms work: divorce stigma edition

divorce is not an option

crap like this really grinds divorcees’ gears.
but it shouldn’t.

I think I mentioned this somewhere on here previously, but I have had what you could call a “starter marriage” already – I was briefly married to my long-time college boyfriend when I was in my early 20s. [More on the specifics of this, and the lessons I’ve learned, some other time for sure]. Within the last year or so, I ended up joining a Facebook group for women who have been divorced in their 20s, run by the author of a book on early divorce. This Facebook group is sociologically interesting (although mostly depressing) and it has gotten me thinking real hard about a number of aspects of the state of gender relations, dating, marriage, + family in the United States today.

Here’s the first of what I expect will be several important divorce board observations: the women in this group have absolutely no grasp of the situation regarding divorce stigma. Frequently, one member or another complains that some family member has made a backhanded and insulting comment about her divorce. Or, a Facebook acquaintance has posted a meme to the effect that “marriage is forever no matter what.”

However, these same divorcees complain about how uncommitted their ex-husbands were to their marriages: neither holding jobs nor helping around the house, refusing to talk about problems, abandonment at first sign of downturn in the relationship, whatever. In fact, they observe that in general men of formerly marriageable age seem not to get it and are shitty partners even if you can manage to talk them into marriage in the first place. Marriage is supposed to be a pretty sweet deal for both parties involved. However could this have happened?

Well, sorry ladies, you can’t have it both ways: Either…

  1. Social norms regarding the permanence and moral significance of marriage exist – in which case they tend to shape men into husband material and explain why people disapprove of your divorce, or
  2. Those norms don’t exist, and you’re stuck on a marriage merry-go-round in which no one cares whether your marriage lasts – including your husband(s).

Occasionally, I have joked about the marriage equality issue, saying stuff like: “Same-sex marriage objectors, don’t blame the gays. If you think there’s a problem with marriage in America, lay your blame with me.” It was tongue-in-cheek, but I kind of meant it. Even if your particular circumstances warranted (or at least seemed to warrant) divorce – lack of love, boredom, substance problems, infidelity, etc – what are social trends other than aggregations of individual decisions? The fact that any given person ends up divorced in her 20s is partially reflective of a previous climate of divorce in the moral community, but it then informs members of that community’s future behavior in turn. Kind of a vicious norms-weakening cycle.

I understand that it’s very hurtful to be on the receiving end of comments suggesting that you must not have taken your marriage seriously, that you didn’t try hard enough, that you’re disobeying God’s will, that you’re degrading civil society, and etc. But that’s the whole point! Norms don’t work if they don’t have teeth; although some members of society in effect free-ride on the willingness of others to enforce the social norms, those norms enforcers are critical to the norm’s health and its capacity to motivate individuals’ action. Indeed, if norms are not enforced adequately, then they eventually fall out of existence altogether.

Social norms have to be fairly general, so people pick them up easily and apply them readily to others even on the basis of fairly little information. It’s reasonable for a divorcé(e) to expect that his or her family and closest friends will care about the situation’s particulars enough to hear them out and to draw a more nuanced conclusion about whether the divorce was warranted, whether it’s turning out for the best, etc. It’s also reasonable to expect that mere acquaintances and strangers will obey norms of etiquette, refraining from outright rudeness (e.g., one divorcée’s relative sent her a Christmas card chastising her about it – totally uncalled for, and not constructive besides).

But these women of all people, the early divorcées, definitely realize that marriage matters, and they honestly want marriages to work. Criticizing the norms that will make this possible once again and refusing to participate in norms enforcement is near-sighted and contrary to their own purposes.