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The problem of decadence

(Michael Hrenka) #1

I see a potentially huge problem with decadence, but before you can understand what this is all about, I should define what I mean with that term. My own definition is rather novel and does not look all too similar to other meanings of the term, but it does fit the general family of associations with decay, weakness, self-indulgence, together with the negative perspective of those. According to my definition of decadence is:

The unwillingness to endure suffering

Now that may look like an odd definition. In particular, the concept itself may feel alien, because its opposite, namely the willingness to endure suffering – which may also be called cadence – does seem intuitively unnatural. And that’s exactly beacuse it’s naturally counter-intuitive to be willing to endure suffering! From this point of view, decadence is an absolutely natural state. Willingness to endure suffering is relatively unnatural, or let’s say unusual.

So, what motivation is there for enduring suffering? Well, having sufficiently important goals is the general class of reasons for willingness to endure suffering. Some goals are certainly worth the painful effort involved in achieving them. You might therefore think that decadence may be a result of not having sufficiently important goals that warrant going through the suffering that the journey of reaching that goal entails. But perhaps it’s just that people wish to reach certain goals, but then shy back from the time, effort, and pain that is actually required for achieving them fully. Perhaps they were in error about the severity of those costs that are involved in the process of getting what they want, but still, they could decide to go on regardless. If they instead give up, they display decadence.

Now you might say: “That’s unfair! Perhaps they just realize that the goal in question just isn’t worth it.” Well, that’s a quite popular and frequent rationalization. Reagardless, it’s still rather lame. If you have good goals, their obtainment should be worth any costs that are not exactly outrageously excesive. If you always give in to convenience and tell yourself, you’ll pursue something else instead, you’ll end up meandering, never finishing anything to its full extent, and going through life not accomplishing very much. The sad thing is that I’m guilty of that, too. In my defense I could evoke my struggle with a difficult chronic disease, but that wouldn’t really strengthen the point I’m trying to make with this post.

Why is all of that relevant?

Well, the reason why I’m writing about decadence is that I see it as major obstacle standing in the way of effectiveness. If you really want to achieve a certain goal, being decadent would make you so much more likely to fail. Every minor obstacle would test your will to go on. And that implies a war of attrition that can hardly be won. A decadent person therefore is not likely to achieve big bold goals, but only minor ones. Truly effective successful persons are not decadent.

So, if you have any kind of meaningful ambitious goals, you should also want to be cadent. How can that be achieved? Well, let’s talk about some related concepts first.


Let’s recollect that I defined decadence as “unwillingness to endure suffering”. Not that I’ve written “unwillingness” and not “inability”. Let me define that now:

Weakness (of character): Inability to endure suffering
Logically, strength (of character) is the ability to endure suffering.

How do weakness and decadence actually differ? Well, in theory, you could have a sufficiently strong ability to endure the suffering that comes as cost of reaching a certain goal, but still be unwilling to go through that suffering. What just stopped you now from reaching your goal was not your weakness, but your decadence. In reality, it’s unlikely that you even develop the strength to reach any ambitious goal, if you are decadent in the first place. This just emphasized how important it is not to be decadent. As most abilities, the ability to endure suffering is gained and fortified by practice. Yet without the willingness to push yourself through suffering, you will have little opportunity to hone that particular ability.

In other words, cadence is a character property that makes it much more likely that you will increase your strength. And that makes it very useful.

Now we could discuss related characteristics like self-discipline, self-regulation, perseverance, grit, and what not. But with cadence and strength, those should come naturally over time. It’s not like these were clearly disjoint concepts. Instead, they have so much of an overlap that for most practical purposes it suffices to treat them as synonyms of strength.

An easy and convenient life breeds decadence

Now that we can understand why cadence can be seen as a very good thing, we should consider the factors the cause decadence. Let’s go far back in history, first. Consider the time when the neolithic revolution changed everything and turned most humans into sessile farmers. Subsisting on farming without modern tools is hard work, so humans had to adapt to a lifestlye of long grueling work hours. Almost everyone had to figuratively work their butts off just in order to life a mildly comfortable life. In most of recorded history the vast majority of people lived in what we now tend to call extreme poverty. Only the small upper classes had a decent amount of leisure and could spend a lot of time concerning themselves with other things than plain work for subsistence. Of course that doesn’t mean that all members of the upper classes devoted their lives to noble causes, far from it. But at least they had the opportunity to do so, while all the rest had not.

While it didn’t really matter whether farmers back then were decadent, because they just had to go through the motions of hard work, the upper classes had to deal with a life in relative comfort and leisure. Such a life doesn’t provide ample incentives to develop strength of character, which is a bit of a shame. The whole achievements of our civilization rests of the few individuals which resisted the spectre of decadence and created new knowledge, inventions, and technologies.

Now the paradoxical problem with new technologies is that they are usually aimed to making life easier and more comfortable. During most of human history the gains from technology were mostly used up for sustaining a larger population living in similar levels of extreme poverty. This only fundamentally changed with the industrial revolution, but more exactly only when workers started getting a significant portion of the gains from dramatically increased productivity. Workers started rising above the levels of extreme poverty and gradually obtained certain rights and privileges. While at the beginning of the industrial revolution 14 hour days were quite normal, the 40 hour workweek has become the norm of the 20th century. Workers began to be confronted with the problem of how to fill their substantial spare time.

Reading books, travelling, political activism, sports, hobbies, but also consuming mass media began filling the time that was freed from gainful work. Nowadays we have a plethora of options for using our ample spare time. Nevertheless, TV, and more recently computer games, Netflix and their like, use up a large chunk of the time of people living in not too impoverished nations today. That can indeed be seen as symptom of decadence. What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that people have become more decadent. It could very well just be the case that the decadence that was already present became more visible, because there weren’t many such convenient and passive ways to spend your time until about 100 years ago.

Universal Basic Income and the fear of decadence

Now if we extrapolate into the future and assume that most humans will be pushed out of their gainful employment by increasingly capable automation, such as robots and artificial intelligence, then things might look dire. It may very well be the case that our decadence becomes extremely visible. And if that comes to pass, it will be taken as argument against introducing or continuing a universal basic income.

We’ve seen nothing, yet

But that’s nothing compared to what will follow. Technology will most likely continue to get better and better. We will become increasingly able to fulfill our wishes in virtual realities, and by modulating our brains in increasingly sophisticated ways. An convenient, and quite pleasant life will become very easy to obtain for everyone. The seduction to be content with the impressive experiences that futuristic technologies will provide us with will become increasingly hard to resist. This will be our ultimate test of cadence. Will we succumb to the temptation of hedonic pleasures in technology-driven overdrive, or will we rise above that challenge to effectively pursue goals that are more meaningful?

So what?

Ah, but then you may argue: “Ok, but if everyone lives a pleasant life enriched by technology, then there are no meaningful problems left to fix, and no goals left that are more worthwhile and meaningful than basically playing supercharged games until the heat death of the universe.”

In theory, that might be true. On the other hand, that position might be horribly mistaken in a way that is not so easy to see from our currently limited point of view. We simply don’t know how a world looks like in which every sentient being has the luxury to be free from involuntary suffering and play extremely enriched games all the time.

One rather obvious point that I can make now is that we are really far away from such a situation. We need to put a lot of thought, energy, and resources into pursuing the goal of turning our world into anything that resembled the state I just sketched. If we become cadent, at least we will be able to reach that goal relatively quickly. If not, we might not reach it in a thousand years – or at all.

We are the Everything

I wonder if there’s a reliable way to actually measure how decadent a person is. Having the UBI reduced to a bare minimum subsistence level in the case of seriously decadent people might work here. Although, it might also work to only consider a person an adult if they’re sufficiently cadent, in which case the UBI wouldn’t exactly be reduced but would rather be in the control of the person’s legal guardian. Might require some changes in what “adult” means and what rights and responsibilities the status includes though.

I don’t think decadence is a stable state. You can’t ever be truly happy as long as you’re decadent. Also, as long as you’re decadent, your level of happiness will keep degrading as time passes. It might be perfectly sufficient to merely help people understand what it is they’re sacrificing by being decadent. (No, I’m not saying that will be easy)