The Meaning of Decadence

When people speak of a society being “decadent,” they commonly understand decadence in terms of standards of personal behavior and the sense of morality, or want of it, that behavior expresses.  For conservatives, personal morality begins with sexual morality grounded in revealed religion; for liberals, with what they call an “ethical” approach to human relations based on equal respect, tolerance, and a refusal to judge people according to a moral code they either do not accept or refuse to observe.  So liberals and conservatives have never been able to agree on the meaning of social and institutional decadence, or on what a decadent society actually looks like.  Decadence, it seems, is a neutral word implying neither good nor bad, while the thing itself is in the eye of the beholder.  But there is another understanding of the word on which conservatives and liberals ought to be able to find some ground at least for agreement, and that is the extent to which society’s institutions are failing or succeeding, success or failure being to a certain extent a matter of observation.  And the best way to evaluate both success and failure is to ask, Is this particular institution fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it was designed and to which it was intended?  To judge by this criterion, every major institution—religion, government, the military, law, business,...

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