Cynical About Cynicism

I’m cyn­i­cal about cyn­i­cism. I don’t be­lieve that most cyn­i­cism is re­ally about know­ing bet­ter. When I see some­one be­ing cyn­i­cal, my first thought is that they’re try­ing to show off their so­phis­ti­ca­tion and as­sert su­pe­ri­or­ity over the naive. As op­posed to, say, shar­ing their un­com­mon in­sight about not-widely-un­der­stood flaws in hu­man na­ture.

There are two ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tions to this rule. One is if the speaker has some­thing se­ri­ous and re­al­is­tic to say about how to im­prove mat­ters. Claiming that prob­lems can be fixed will in­stantly lose you all your world-weary street cred and mark you as an­other starry-eyed ideal­is­tic fool. (Con­versely, any “solu­tion” that man­ages not to dis­rupt the gen­eral at­mo­sphere of doom, does not make me less skep­ti­cal: “Hu­mans are evil crea­tures who slaugh­ter and de­stroy, but even­tu­ally we’ll die out from poi­son­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, so it’s all to the good, re­ally.“)

No, not ev­ery prob­lem is solv­able. But by and large, if some­one achieves un­com­mon in­sight into dark­ness—if they know more than I do about hu­man na­ture and its flaws—then it’s not un­rea­son­able to ex­pect that they might have a sug­ges­tion or two to make about rem­edy, patch­ing, or minor deflec­tion. If, you know, the prob­lem is one that they re­ally would pre­fer solved, rather than gloom be­ing milked for a feel­ing of su­pe­ri­or­ity to the naive herd.

The other ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tion is for sci­ence that has some­thing to say about hu­man na­ture. A testable hy­poth­e­sis is a testable hy­poth­e­sis and the thing to do with it is test it. Though here one must be very care­ful not to go be­yond the let­ter of the ex­per­i­ment for the sake of sig­nal­ing hard-headed re­al­ism:

Con­sider the hash that some peo­ple make of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy in try­ing to be cyn­i­cal—as­sum­ing that hu­mans have a sub­con­scious mo­tive to pro­mote their in­clu­sive ge­netic fit­ness. Con­sider the hash that some neu­ro­scien­tists make of the re­sults of their brain scans, sup­pos­ing that if a brain po­ten­tial is visi­ble be­fore the mo­ment of re­ported de­ci­sion, this proves the nonex­is­tence of free will. It’s not you who chooses, it’s your brain!

The facts are one thing, but feel­ing cyn­i­cal about those facts is an­other mat­ter en­tirely. In some cases it can lead peo­ple to over­run the facts—to con­struct new, un­proven, or even out­right dis­proven glooms in the name of sig­nal­ing re­al­ism. Be­hav­iorism prob­a­bly had this prob­lem—sig­nal­ing hard­headed re­al­ism about hu­man na­ture was prob­a­bly one of the rea­sons they as­serted we don’t have minds.

I’m es­pe­cially on guard against cyn­i­cism be­cause it seems to be a stan­dard cor­rup­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity in par­tic­u­lar. If many peo­ple are op­ti­mists, then true ra­tio­nal­ists will oc­ca­sion­ally have to say things that sound pes­simistic by con­trast. If peo­ple are try­ing to sig­nal virtue through their be­liefs, then a ra­tio­nal­ist may have to ad­vo­cate con­trast­ing be­liefs that don’t sig­nal virtue.

Which in turn means that ra­tio­nal­ists, and es­pe­cially ap­pren­tice ra­tio­nal­ists watch­ing other ra­tio­nal­ists at work, are es­pe­cially at-risk for ab­sorb­ing cyn­i­cism as though it were a virtue in its own right—as­sum­ing that whoso­ever speaks of ul­te­rior mo­tives is prob­a­bly a wise ra­tio­nal­ist with un­com­mon in­sight; or be­liev­ing that it is an en­ti­tled benefit of re­al­ism to feel su­pe­rior to the naive herd that still has a shred of hope.

And this is a fear­some mis­take in­deed, be­cause you can’t pro­pose ways to me­lio­rate prob­lems and still come off as world-weary.

TV Tropes pro­poses a Slid­ing Scale of Ideal­ism Ver­sus Cyn­i­cism. It looks to me like Robin tends to fo­cus his sus­pi­cions on that which might be sig­nal­ing ideal­ism, virtue, or righ­teous­ness; while I tend to fo­cus my own skep­ti­cism on that which might sig­nal cyn­i­cism, world-weary so­phis­ti­ca­tion, or sage ma­tu­rity.