The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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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.
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 email@example.com with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!