Wednesday, 18 November 2009

On Cynicism

I attended Dr Samantha Vice's Philosophy On Tap session last night, which will mark her last night here in Singapore. A wrap-up on about two weeks' worth of sharing, discussing and exploring her ideas on cynicism and morality went on for about an hour. I'd regretfully missed most of her talks while she was on tour in Singapore, especially the Capstone Seminar session, but even last night's short session was quite thoroughly enjoyable.

For a start, people generally admire cynics because they seem to be seeing things most of us don't. When a cynic speaks up against something, it's like wow, finally someone brave enough is willing to stand up and say something about it and even sound clever doing it. Dr Vice aptly used business men (often in advertising) and politicians as her target examples for why cynicism, when applied, can be a virtue. A caveat, however, is that we only appreciate them if they share the target of our disapproval. People get extremely defensive when they belong to a group that cynics target. Just consider the love cynic who espouses negative thoughts to an audience of yuppies.

The strongest albeit most controversial aspect of her argument is that cynicism is incompatible with morality, i.e. it is immoral to be cynical. This is mostly due to the way she has defined cynicism which, while it makes sense, has elements that are inherently immoral in some aspects already. So her definition of cynicism differs somewhat from the more layman way of thinking about cynics.

In a nutshell which runs the terrible risk of oversimplifying, cynicism involves 1) belief in human nature as 'bad' (self-interested, flawed, etc), 2) skepticism, suspicion, pessimism, maybe even resignation (which stems from the belief that the human condition is pathetic and unsalvageable), and 3) 'disengagement', which is the most crucial point in my opinion. Disengagement is a deliberate separation of self from the situation, such that one is then allowed to indulge in the witticism, coolness and suaveness of being a cynic. Because the cynic has such a low outlook on humanity, there is little that can get him or her down because everything is already expected within his or her realm of negative judgment. The cynic thus cannot seem to be 'shaken'. This disengagement stems from a lack of optimism about the human condition and a dispassionate take on the reality such that one will not be inclined to do anything about it.

Most of us who would think of ourselves as cynical would fulfill points 1 and 2, but point 3 is tricky because as long as we still have faith yet that there is hope for humanity to change things for the better, we aren't the extreme cynic Dr Vice is critical of. In other words, if we care enough about something, we aren't completely cynical. The fashionable coolness of cynicism stems from their devil-may-care attitude about the torrid state of things, and then joke about it and adopt a stance that says that they don't really give a damn.

Dr Vice has raised some objections to such an attitude towards life. For a start, whether we should endorse something can be judged by whether we would allow our children to be brought up that way. As such, there is something rather perverse about having a cynical child who is suspicious about everything. It is important that this should be contrasted with having a smart chlid who is discerning - the cynic looks at things a priori with a stance of suspicion already, which brings us to the next point. It is immoral to be cynical because we will judge people negatively even against the light of evidence, because everything has some underlying ulterior motive. This immorality may lead on to a whole host of other things later down the road, such as elitism and stereotyping.

Another compelling question Dr Vice raised also is: "can you imagine committing yourself to a lifetime with a cynic?"

I think the idea can be generalised most in a utilitarian manner when one simply thinks of life as consisting of a series of prisoner's dilemmas on a day-to-day basis. If there were more cynics amongst us, or if everyone in the world is a cynic, each prisoner's dilemma outcome would either be 'I lose' or 'both loses', leading to an overall decrease in wellbeing of both society and the individual.

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