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Good Old-Fashioned Cynicism

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Cynicism gets a bad rap these days.  The same is true of skepticism, but our little sub-culture is making some progress in restoring its positive connotation.  I think cynicism as a philosophical position deserves a second chance.  One of religion’s big attractions is its offering of a package deal.  It offers its believers an overall guide to life, in a variety of domains: moral, metaphysical, epistemic.  Humans like this sort of one-stop shopping.  It is easier to pick up a single package of philosophies than it is to root around town for singular philosophies in each domain.  Well, we offer religious believers with an alternative position on the God question and epistemic virtues when we cheer for atheism and skepticism.  But from a consumer perspective, this is not enough, because this leaves them having to seek out new moral and metaphysical positions.  We see this happen when newly minted atheists and skeptics wander down strange paths of nihilism, egoism, or solipsism.  Some good old-fashioned cynicism might be just what the doctor ordered.

Of course, the old-fashioned cynicism is not quite the same as the modern sense of the term.  Adherents of the current form of cynicism tend to be jaded and untrusting, whereas the ancient cynics strove for lives of simplicity and virtue.  They were immaterialistic in the economic sense, but materialistic in the metaphysical sense.  It may seem that the two cynics are completely different, and wholly unrelated.  But I don’t think so.  I think the modern-day cynics just need a few of their value-judgments adjusted, and maybe all will be right as rain.

Old school cynicism, like most solid philosophical positions, comes from the Greeks, and was influenced by Indian philosophy.  Basically, the cynics rejected social conventions of etiquette, religion, and morality, and probably other things as well, and chose instead to live a life of simple pursuits.  They sought to live in harmony with nature, become self-sufficient, and master their minds.  The latter two are familiar goals for many of us today, who value autonomy.  Skeptics strive to achieve mental autonomy by forming beliefs in accord with rigorous epistemic scrutiny, so this master of the mind is already familiar to us.  Becoming self-sufficient is sort of an ideal of American mythology, wherein one rises to riches from the rags of one’s bootstraps or something.  The cynical ideal of self-sufficiency strives for an element of this American ideal, but leaves out the “rise to riches” part.

I think modern cynics still have the core cynical property of rejecting convention and being generally anti-society, for societies of a certain sort.  This is the negative project of cynicism: to question social norms, values, and conventions.  If this is all a cynic does, she will behave as most modern cynics do.  However, with a slight tweak in values, and the motivation of a desire to live virtuously, I see no reason the modern day cynics can’t offer a positive philosophy in the domain of “meaning of life”.  It’s a meaning of life without the intentional, purposeful attachments that accompany religious meanings of life, sure, but still it is an approach to meaning in life.  We look at ourselves and see that we’re natural creatures of a certain sort, we observe a mental state called ‘happiness’ and see that its good, and that the one called ‘suffering’ is bad.  We see that certain behaviors tend to produce happiness, whereas others tend to produce suffering. These are facts about our species, some of which generalize to other species that are similar to us in relevant respects.  It is a sort of ascetism in that it rejects the value of wantonly accumulating material things, but it does so because it thinks this behavior is most conducive to being virtuous and happy.

Modern cynics are known for their value of cutting social satire.  Well, the production of similar satirical observations was a favorite past time of Diogenes, the most famous cynic ever.  On the good old-fashioned cynical view of the meaning of life, satire is highly valued.  I posted a blog the other day about old-timey American writer Ambrose Bierce, saying he was cynical and skeptical as shit.  I meant it in the old-fashioney sense.  His satire criticized social norms and values, he was skeptical about the justifications of religious and political claims, and I imagine he sought self-sufficiency (since he was an old-timey American), but he lacked some of the positive elements of cynicism.  Had he included the positive elements of old-fashioned cynicism, he may have been happier.

In short, with the powers of skepticism and cynicism combined, having properly explained the tenets of each, we’ve got ourselves a nice package-deal.  The epistemic position of skepticism, I think, leads to the atheistic God position (I know, Rocket, one can point to skeptical theists; I think they were doing it wrong) and the naturalistic metaphysical position.  The meaning-of-life position of cynicism (consistent with naturalism) leads to a moral position close to something like a hybrid of utilitarianism and Buddhism (I know I haven’t established these last claims yet; I’m just spit-balling now…), which reminds me a bit of Sam Harris’s moral view.

Our skepticism/cynicism mascot.

But, perhaps most importantly, (This is for you, Dave!), the word “cynic” comes from the Greek word κυνικός (kynikos), which means “Dog-like,” from the word κύων (kyôn), for “dog”.  We have a ready-made symbol for all of our bumper-stickers and tattoos and whatnot.  Plus, Americans love dogs, so that’s a selling point.  “American, don’t you wish you lived a life more like your dog’s?  Well now you can.  Try skepticism and cynicism as a package-deal philosophy.”

Of course, none of this will ever work, because the negative connotations of both words are too entrenched, and Americans have developed into lazy, vicious idiots, who will believe anything if it is written in gilded letters, served with a free buffet, and tells you “don’t worry, you don’t have to change anything about yourself.  Just believe in magic.”  I don’t know.  Call me a cynic.


Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

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About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

17 comments on “Good Old-Fashioned Cynicism

  1. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    Why wouldn’t moral nihilism be a better position (to say nothing about epistemological…)?

  2. Seth Kurtenbach
    May 18, 2012

    What do you mean by “better position”?

    • Alex Papulis
      May 18, 2012

      Moral nihilism seems to assume nothing that isn’t entailed by a skeptical position + a naturalistic metaphysic. Why think that moral properties exist?

      And why burden oneself with utilitarianism if it’s not entailed by one’s more basic position?

      • Seth Kurtenbach
        May 18, 2012

        Well, I take as my starting point the question, “how should I live my life?”, rather than what you call the “more basic position”. I don’t know that either position is more basic than the other; they seem to apply to different domains. In epistemology, I’m a skeptic, and that certainly influences how I reason about the moral domain, but I don’t know if epistemology is more basic than morality. I am inclined to think they are both sub-domains of a more general normative domain.

        With the question “how should I live my life?”, nihilism doesn’t say much. It’s a question that is very important to me, because I think I have only one life. In examining this question, I’m looking for relatively general principles that offer guidance in decision-making. I choose the principles based on the method of reflective equilibrium. I don’t claim to “know” these principles, or that they are entailed by my other views, but rather I adopt these principles as an act of judgment. You do the same when you adopt the principle “adopt the moral position that assumes nothing that isn’t entailed by skepticism and naturalism.” Why think this is a good principle? What kind of life does it suggest I live?

  3. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    By “more basic position” I mean something like the naturalistic metaphysical position that you said follows from skepticism. Why think there is a way that you should live? I grant that there is a way you (or anybody) wants to live, but why think you have to live any given way?

    When you say you adopt principle of reflective equilibrium “as an act of judgment”, do you mean something other than you adopt it for some epistemic reason? Reflective equilibrium doesn’t explain why you have to live by reflective equilibrium. If living by reflective equilibrium is just a preference, like any other, then I don’t see any problem.

    Why would someone adopt instead the position that assumes nothing that isn’t entailed by skepticism and naturalism? Well, if they’re a skeptic and a naturalist, it seems like that would be the rationally consistent thing to do (unless of course the position isn’t an epistemic one, but rather something like a preference). Otherwise it seems like we’re being fideists at best.

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      May 18, 2012

      “Why think there is a way that you should live?”
      You’ve granted that there may be ways one wants to live. I want to live well; I want to live a life that I sincerely judge to be good. So, when I ask, “how should I live?”, I mean, “What way(s) of living are likely to lead to a life that I sincerely judge to be good?” As a minimum constraint on this, I think I should generally avoid contributing to the suffering of others. I’ve experienced suffering, and it is something I would judge to be bad. I bet others consider their own suffering to be bad, as well. A good life generally avoids contributing to the bad, so a good life will generally avoid contributing to suffering. So, if I want to live a life that I sincerely judge to be good, then I should generally avoid contributing to suffering.

      How does moral nihilism respond to the question, “What way(s) of living are likely to lead to a life that I sincerely judge to be good?” It might assert that the question doesn’t make sense, that there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad”, so no way of living can properly lead to such a life. Okay, how should I live, then, given that there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’? It’s an unavoidable question, and it sure seems to make sense. What does moral nihilism say? I’m really curious. Does it say, “do whatever you want”? Well, I want to live a life that satisfies my considered preferences, basically by definition. I prefer to live a life that I consider to be good. Maybe this preference is unsatisfiable, I don’t know, but I’m going to try, in case it is. My prior probability favors “satisfiable.” It’s rational to pursue it.

      I’m happy to admit that “good” and “bad” reduce to the satisfaction of preferences, but I think that my preference to live a good life entails that I avoid contributing to the suffering of others. I think a good life involves considering the effects of one’s behavior on others. I think this because I’ve seen others act consistently with this, and inconsistently, and I’ve acted both consistently and inconsistently with it, and I’ve judge the consistent behavior to be conducive to a good life and the inconsistent behavior to be inconducive to a good life. So, my experience informs my judgment.

      I use the method of reflective equilibrium because I don’t know how else to approach the issue. I could just randomly judge things based on coin flips, but I don’t think that will help me satisfy my preference to live a good life. Harvey Two-Face does that, and I don’t think his way of living is conducive to a good life.

      I don’t see the rational inconsistency in being a skeptic, and a naturalist, and a utilitarian broadly construed. I prefer to have only justified beliefs, and this leads to skepticism and naturalism. I prefer to act in ways conducive to a good life, and this leads minimally to a utilitarian position, as I explain above.

      • Alex Papulis
        May 18, 2012

        “How does moral nihilism respond to the question, ‘What way(s) of living are likely to lead to a life that I sincerely judge to be good?'”
        —Moral nihilism is a thesis about what ways of living are good (with a normative sense), not about what any given person will judge to be good. An analogy would be with atheism, perhaps. Atheism is a thesis about the existence of deities, not about what people will sincerely judge about deities. Moral nihilism would say that no ways of living are good (again, in the normative sense), as there is no ontological referent of “good”.

        Moral nihilism doesn’t tell you how to live your life. It doesn’t tell you to do what you want, because there’s nothing about the world that could tell you what to do. There aren’t any imperatives out in the world to be discovered.

        It seems like we’re actually agreed on moral nihilism. If I understand your position, by “good” you mean satisfying of your preferences. That of course isn’t the normal sense. When people say murder is bad, they don’t mean, murder doesn’t satisfy my preferences.

        In any case, it seems like we’re agreed that good and bad aren’t properties out in the world. So when you say “I think a good life involves considering the effects of one’s behavior on others,” you’re saying that a life considering the effects of one’s behavior on others will satisfy your preferences. Good is just a descriptive statement about what you like. There’s no moral or normative element there.

        And it’s not like preferences are rational. It’s not like some preferences are “right” or “wrong.” You prefer to consider the effects of one’s behavior on others, in regards to suffering, desiring to diminish. Another might desire to consider only the effects on one’s own economic situation. There’s no basic difference between the two, there’s just difference preferences.

        So I don’t deny that you might find that living as utilitarianism would require were it true makes you more satisfied. But it’s not like utilitarianism as a normative system is true or could be under metaphysical naturalism.

  4. Seth Kurtenbach
    May 18, 2012

    “There aren’t any imperatives out in the world to be discovered.” I think I agree with this. I don’t think we ‘discover’ imperatives, but rather that we assert them based on some judgment. I think R.M. Hare is basically right: I think his position is more likely to be right than moral nihilism.

  5. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    When you say judgment, what do you mean? Why would we assert something if it’s not something we can learn about/discover in the world?

    How do you understand universal prescriptivism, and why do you think it answers moral nihilism?

  6. Seth Kurtenbach
    May 18, 2012

    A judgment is a reckoning of value based on one’s considered preferences. We assert things like prescriptions because we’ve judged them to characterize the good in some sense relative to the context of the decision.

    “why do you think it [universal prescriptivism] answers moral nihilism?” I don’t know what this question is asking. You might mean, “why do you think U.P. is more likely to be true than M.N.?” To this, I say, U.P. seems more reasonable (I won’t define this for you, so don’t bother asking what I mean), and given my uncertainty about each position, I’d rather be mistaken about U.P. than about M.N.

  7. Seth Kurtenbach
    May 18, 2012

    Why do you think moral nihilism is true?

  8. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    Wait, so you think that value is a property that exists in the world? Things have value? If we’re going to reckon value, either it exists or we’re always wrong. I would grant that things satisfy desires, but I don’t know what value (in the moral realism sense) could be. I’m not denying that people have desires and can think about how much something will satisfy their desires, but that’s not what people have in mind when making moral claims.

    When I asked why you think universal prescriptivism answers moral nihilism, perhaps I should have asked if you think it preserves moral realism. If we’re agreed that moral properties like good, bad, right, wrong, etc. don’t exist, then no problem. It’s one thing to explain the logic or character of our moral language, another to believe that moral properties are real.

    I think I understand what you mean when you say universal prescriptivism is more reasonable than moral nihilism. Can I ask why you think that? I would like to hear the reasons.

  9. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    If metaphysical naturalism is true, then it seems that moral properties can’t exist. What sort of thing would a requirement or obligation be? There’s nothing about the physical facts of an act that could either require you to refrain or abstain. What would that requirement consist in?

    And even if things like moral obligation and requirement did exist, by what faculty would we perceive them? A biologist, chemist, physicist, psychologist, and lawyer all get together and tell us everything there is to be said about what takes place when a person is executed by firing squad. What would we now do to determine if a moral obligation to refrain from such executions exists?

  10. Seth Kurtenbach
    May 18, 2012

    Do you think “moral nihilism” and “moral realism” are the only alternatives? I don’t think U.P. preserves moral realism, but I don’t think it follows that I’m a moral nihilist. Could you establish this entailment? Or rather, could you give me the reason you think this is the case? Wait, you don’t think it’s possible to have reasons, right?

    If metaphysical naturalism is true, it is still possible for moral properties to pick out relations between states of the world and our considered preferences (in a broad sense, taking into account our concern for the preferences of others). If this is still confusing, I’ll have to call for a rain check.

    I think obligations and requirements are imperatives issued by rationality in the preference-satisfaction sense. I want to live morally, I think morality requires me to consider the preferences of others, so I should act in such a way that I take into account the preferences of others in order to satisfy my desire to live morally as I understand it. It seems pretty simple and straight-forward to me.

  11. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    I think moral anti-realism is just about moral nihilism. Again, if we’re agreed that moral properties or relations, understood as something apart from a subject’s desires, are not constituents of the physical world, then it’s just a label.

    I don’t dispute that moral terms could pick out relations between states of affairs in the world, just that they could pick out the relations that people think they do, such as obligation, requirement, etc as commonly understood. So “good” could be used to pick out the relation “satisfying of my desires”, but that’s not what people think they’re picking out.

    So if I can “translate” you’re last sentence given obligations as understood in terms of preference satisfaction: “X wants to live in a way that satisfies X’s preferences; X thinks that in order to live in a way that satisfies X’s preferences, X must consider the preferences of others (i.e. one of his preferences is to consider others’ preferences); so X should take into account the preferences of others in order to satisfy X’s desire to satisfy X’s preferences.”

    I agree it’s straight-forward. It’s just desire satisfaction.

    And as for reasons, have I ever just asserted things? I hope not, and call me out if I do. If there was something amiss in my presentation concerning reasons (which is what I assume you’re alluding to), please let me know. I would like to know if I was wrong.

  12. Alex Papulis
    May 18, 2012

    Yeah, my “wait…” wasn’t right. I think the position is problematic, still, but the way I said it was a little jack assy. Sorry about that.

  13. rocketkirchner
    May 23, 2012

    Seth , i am glad you finally got around to this subject. I dont think you are a cynic in the definition of Diogenes . The real cynics were into ”world negation ” just like the real christians were,… the difference is is when Diogenes sent his disciples out he sent them out with rod , wallet , shoes , etc. Jesus sent his out with nothing . this may not seem like much of a difference but it is . J.D. Crossan points out the difference . The early christians were sent out with nothing so that they became dependent on communtiys and that would form ”commensiality ”. Diogenes cynics were sent out with protective measures to be self suffecent . Both embrace world negation , but the cynics never offered anything as an al;ternative . I dont see that in you . you are seeking an ethos to construct your life and paradigm on . in a way , you are on a mission . i am not stating this as a knock on you at a all ( LOL ) , but as an observation .

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2012 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, philosophy and tagged , , .
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