The Ethics Of… Cynicism

For those that missed the last couple of weeks, life has gotten kinda busy all of a sudden, so I’m doing some shorter articles. So apologies for the general lack of prose going on here.

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If you’re the sort of person who’s interested in big ideas and is experienced enough to take them with a grain of salt, then odds are you’ve been called a cynic at some point. Maybe someone was telling you about a revolutionary new political movement, a profound philosophical idea they’d just discovered or gushing over a particular celebrity they adore, and instead of just nodding and smiling like you were supposed to, you decided to ask some questions – very pointy questions that likely burst someone’s bubble.

And naturally, on having it pointed out to them that their wonderful new idea turned out to be outdated, disproven, thoroughly corrupt and/or outright stupid, your conversation partner did what human beings do best and took out their embarrassment on you. “Why do you always have to be so gosh-darn cynical and go and assume everything is terrible?”, they may ask, “Why can’t you just have a little faith in people and trust that, in the end, they’ll make the right decisions and everything will be alright!”.

Oh, right.

In modern usage, cynicism is ‘an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives’, and in the recent months of Donald Trump, Brexit, endless climate change denial, and Australia’s ongoing war against the world’s most vulnerable, holy shit if that doesn’t seem like the single safest bet in the world.

It’s been clearly established that both Trump and Brexit ride largely on a wave of middle-class voters who are sick of the normal system and want things to change. And in a staggering display or irony, those people have turned to leaders who are so clearly manipulating them for their own ends that it’s painful to watch – Trump and Boris Johnson will secure positions of power using methods that will ruin their economies, making life harder for the same people that supported them in the first place.

By the time this post goes out Australia will have finished its latest federal election and regardless of who wins, the system is so rife with accountability loopholes and legalised bribery (aka. ‘campaign donations’) that it’s an open question whether the winner will stick to any of the promises they were elected to deliver.

Even outside the Machiavellian world of politics the same story plays out again and again;

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Or as I like to call it, Bullshit Tennis.

Confronted with these efforts to willingly ignore, twist or flat-out deny the evidence available, cynicism doesn’t just seems like the safest bet, it’s practically a civic duty – what better defence against ignorance than the assumption that everyone is a self-serving idiot until proven otherwise? Perhaps if more people took such an attitude then they’d be less eager to follow those wolves in sheep’s clothing that worsen our lives for their personal profit.

But before we roll out the black berets, get drunk on cheap wine and declare all hope as folly, there is one key problem with cynicism we might want to consider: it never really improves anything.

Here’s the thing; contrary to what certain folk would have you believe, there is a small but serious difference between cynicism and scepticism. The first is an all-around distrust of people’s motives and everything they do as a result. The second on the other hand, is ‘questioning attitude towards unempirical knowledge’ – that is, a complete lack of tolerance for any ideas that aren’t based in cold hard evidence. Both are indeed rooted in doubt about other people’s intentions, but whereas cynicism just assumes they’re a scumbag from the get go, scepticism demands that they prove that their ideas have merit and keep proving that merit as things progress.

Sure, neither of these approaches is going to make you popular at parties, but the evidenced-based approach of a sceptic at least leaves you open to the possibility of being convinced, whereas a cynic is going to be a gloomypants no matter what happens. After all if you’re approach to life is to doubt the intentions of everyone around you, then what could they ever do to convince you otherwise? You’d just see their efforts as all the more proof that they’re up to something.

Sounds great, except it makes you incapable of helping.

Yes the world is full of people who lie and mislead to get what they want, but that doesn’t mean they can’t ever be trusted. In fact I’d go so far as to say that everyone can be trusted; trusted to act in their own self-interest.

Make this distinction and life takes on an extremely different tone; it’s not that people are selfish, manipulative, evil or stupid, it’s that they all have very different ideas of what is good and how to get that thing, and the resulting chaos ends up looking like a great big mess of selfish, manipulative, evil and stupid. But where a cynic assumes this mess is just a mess, the sceptic sees it for what it is – an opportunity.

See if people can be relied upon to act in their own interests (or at least what they see as their own interests) then you now have a powerful method of getting their attention and making them pay attention to all that evidence they’ve been ignoring – demonstrate that what they thought was in their own interests is in fact not in their interests and odds are you have people paying quite a bit more attention than they were.

Naturally in practice things are a bit more complicated than that, thanks in large part to the fact that most people don’t really articulate their interests leaving you to do a lot of guessing, but get a firm grasp of what a person wants and your ability to make them care about trifles like reality becomes significantly stronger. But this method only works if you are willing to admit that people can be brought around to a better way of doing things in the first place, and that is a skill that cynicism does not offer.

When you get right down to it, the goal of any big idea is to bring about a better world. To have any chance of doing that you need to understand how the world currently works, and cynics are damn good at that if nothing else. But if you want to help improve things then that knowledge isn’t enough – you need to believe things can be improved and you have to be willing to seek out what that better world could and should look like. That is something cynicism cannot do.

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4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Cynicism

  1. I really, really appreciate this post. It’s very timely for me to learn the distinction between cynicism and scepticism, because I’ve been slipping more and more into cynicism in recent years. Now I have a much better understanding of the concept and will aim for scepticism instead. Cheers!

    • Hi Natalya, glad you found it helpful! Half the reason I wrote the article is because I struggle with the same problem – very easy to default to cynicism sometimes, but important we resist the temptation!

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Fake News | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Journalism | The Ethics Of

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