Does Declinism Matter?
Rather than betting on declinism as an amorphous political force, we should take the hard route, the one that requires intellectual honesty. Perhaps, in the face of the huge challenges of climate change, or the various social injustices we’re still facing, it is useful to “scare straight” those who believe that nothing needs to change. But then, scaring straight has never been shown to be a particularly good strategy in law enforcement, either, and it might as well backfire.
Nothing I have written, admittedly, provides us with a knock-down argument against declinism, even less does it provide evidence for optimism. My upshot is annoyingly inconclusive, as sceptical cases tend to be: we should be much more cautious about judgments regarding cultural decline or progress. The truth is hard and complex. If philosophers know one thing, then it’s that.
Indeed, I tend to think that, to the degree that the underlying claims of declinism make sense and can be given anything resembling a determinate formulation, we do not know their truth for all practical purposes (even if they’re not in principle unknowable). It would take a significant effort to establish declinism’s truth. After all, the claim that an entire culture is declining, in addition to the various conceptual challenges I’ve outlined, should be based on more than “I know it when I see it” gut feelings. We would expect the truth of such a claim to be a complicated empirical question, relying on a wide-ranging set of observations.
Would it be worth this tremendous effort to find out whether our culture is declining in such ways or not? This depends, crucially, on whether the thing declining is worth caring about. Whether we should care about America’s decline as a superpower, for example, depends on the degree to which think it important that America should be one. If you think that the welfare of most people depends in some way on American dominance being sustained, then obviously you should be greatly troubled by American decline.
Does “culture” matter? That’s a strange question to ask that abstractly. If we are to think of the “health” or “vibrancy” of culture as a value wholly detached from the lives of actual individuals, it is indeed hard to see why we should care all that much for it. If culture matters, then because it makes better some particular people’s lives. So if there is a genuine concern about declining culture, then it is most plausibly the concern that our lives are more artistically, culturally, and intellectually impoverished as a result of such a decline.
More could be said about the issue, but let me highlight only one idea in closing. The impact that any cultural decline would have still pales in comparison to many other factors that affect our well-being. A lack in socio-economic growth and opportunities should concern us much more than even egregious cultural decline. Cultural decline, from that perspective, looks like the quintessential “first-world problem”: it’s what we bother ourselves with if we have already gotten to all the important civilizational achievements.
In the end, then, it’s not even clear how much cultural decline would matter in the overarching scheme of things. That does not mean it’s without intellectual interest; but the practical urgency of fighting it is unclear. At any rate, I would be very happy if cultural declinism as a dinner-table conversation topic was finally laid to rest. I would have to rant less.