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The ambivalence of cynicism

19 September 2022

Cynicism seems to have an ambivalent status. On the one hand, ‘being cynical’ might mean dogmatic scepticism about people’s moral character. A cynic can be arrogant – too smart, too savvy, to be taken in by illusions the rest of us pathetically take to be the truth. Some cynics work with a jaundiced conception of human nature – we are rotten all the way down and incapable of selflessness. All our apparent compassion is but concealed calculatedness and anyone with any rosier view is a naïf. For critics, then, cynicism is nothing to admire – a cynic refuses to see genuine goodness where they find it and valorises an emotionally and interpersonally desiccating distrustfulness.

On the other hand, many voices praise and endorse cynicism as a valuable quality to have in our imperfect world. Cynicism can guide us towards a sober-minded apprehension of facts about the world. Since dissimulation, conceit, and bullshit are endemic within the world, the sensible person cultivates cynical attitudes – a pre-emptive suspiciousness towards professed motivations and official stories, say, or ardent commitment to question rather than to accept the self-ennobling proclamations of others. In Michel Foucault’s final lectures at the College de France, cynicism manifests in parrhesia – a courageous truthfulness. Cynics want to see the truth about their world but also to openly communicate it to others, emulating Diogenes of Sinope. It may depress them that the truths are grim, but nothing guarantees that truth will be attractive. On these views, cynicism is seen as a bitter medicine – antidote to a naïveté that would render us vulnerable to a world filled to excess with opportunistic bullshitters and full-time bastards.

I think the critics are right that cynicism in many of its forms could be dangerous, but also that the other side are right that there is a value in certain ways of being cynical. The literature on cynicism by political theorists and cultural and intellectual historians roughly divides into those who condemn cynicism and those which urge more pluralistic conceptions of cynicism. A common mistake is to focus on a single kind of cynicism and shift from criticising it to the wholesale rejection of cynicism tout court. To see why this is a mistake, we should start with the conceptual core of cynicism.

I think the diversity of kinds of cynicism in practice share two related convictions: (a) the professed motivations and values of an agent are (or are likely to be) different from the operative motivations or values and, relatedly, (b) the operative motivations or values are (or are likely to be) morally lesser in their quality or status than the professed ones. What really drives the behaviour of an individual or group or institution is quite different from what it or they say is doing the motivational work. When I say ‘morally lesser’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘evil’, ‘wicked’, or otherwise invidious. Think of the familiar signs in hotel bathrooms asking guests to consider reusing their towels for the sake of the environment. The professed values are environmental sustainability but the actual motivation, for the hotel, is reducing operating costs. This is not a morally bad motivation and it obviously makes good sense. But it is lesser, morally, than environmental concern. Indeed, critics see it as cynical ‘greenwashing’.

The combination of (a) and (b) explains the typical epistemic and affective expressions of cynicism. Active suspiciousness, distrustful or reticent attitudes toward others, and striving to identify people’s ‘real’ motivations – all these are hallmarks of being cynical. In many cases, the outlook of a cynic is cautious, questioning. Confronted with seemingly noble actions and apparently admirable commitments, the cynic pauses and wonders. Why do companies now fly rainbow flags to ‘proudly support’ Pride? Why do cosmetics companies like to partner with breast cancer charities? The cynic must avoid dogmatically demanding the answers to their questions be bad ones. They just want to ensure that the bad answers are being explored as contenders. Maybe companies now support Pride because their focus groups said LBTQ+ inclusion resonates with target demographics. Maybe cosmetics companies really are trying to commercialise women’s suffering.

It is obviously too thin to try to characterise cynicism in terms of the twin convictions that professed motivations or values are different and morally lesser. Around that ‘core’, we can construct complex kinds of cynicism, built out of a range of epistemic attitudes and policies, affective dispositions, interpersonal practices, and even elaborate accounts of human nature. I am very sceptical about this anthropological cynicism. Human nature is too dappled for us to take seriously one-sided portrayals of us as ‘essentially selfish’ while confident claims we are incapable of selflessness are unfalsifiable. In any case, cynics don’t need to delve deep in the innermost recesses of our natures to justify their core convictions. Everyday experiences, critical reflection, and a serious understanding of how the world works is enough.

We might worry that cynicism could all too easily mutate into exaggerated forms. Perhaps my experiences and reflections are too narrow or biased to really warrant the conclusions that I draw from them. Perhaps my cynicism tends to be the acceptable face of my arrogant sense that I alone see the truth of the world. Perhaps my cynicism isolates me from other people in ways that deprive me of their essential checks of my epistemic self-confidence. I agree that a person with emerging cynical convictions will be faced with these developmental risks. It can take real efforts for a cynic to constantly steer clear of arrogance, dogmatism, contempt, and other vices. For this reason, I want to resist the claims that cynicism must involve a contempt for human beings or the conviction that people lack moral worth. No doubt some cynics have that sort of contemptuous outlook, but they are extreme and corrupted kinds of cynicism. The cynic could think human beings to be capable of goodness and possessed of moral worth – if only their world was more conducive to moral conduct. A cynic, on my understanding, could condemn the social world rather than contemn human beings.

I suggest there is really nothing puzzling in the ambivalent status of cynicism. Is it a virtue or a vice – a positive trait to cultivate or some negative trait to be condemned and corrected? Such questions can only be addressed by more careful distinctions between different kinds of cynicism. Around the two core convictions we can build a variety of different cynical stances, composed of different attitudes, dispositions, commitments, and beliefs, all of which inflect varieties of cynicism. Some might be virtuous, some might be vicious, and many likely retain their ambivalent character. In any case, we are well-advised to avoid generalising accounts of cynicism that at best refer to certain forms that it can take under specific historical or cultural conditions. Critics of cynicism who see it as a royal road to despair, resignation, or lassitude are generally attacking specific forms it could take (some examples are Jeffrey Goldfarb and Patrick Deneen and politicians like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, all of whom warn of the threat that cynicism poses to democratic life). Some kinds of cynicism may be threatening, but not all kinds – and, if one wishes to rule out all the forms of cynicism, one must go through them systematically.

We also do well to investigate how specific kinds of cynicism might function or play roles in the world. We should not be dogmatic when thinking about the functions of cynicism – this attitude must be proven in practice by showing us what these ‘good’ forms of cynicism might look like. Fortunately, several historians have embraced this pluralist and pragmatic spirit – some good examples include Helen Small and Sharon Stanley. What their historical research shows us is that there are many varying kinds of cynicism, expressing themselves in all sorts of ways, and with differing degrees of fidelity to the original Greek tradition. The cynicism modelled by Diogenes of Sinope is related to, but hardly identical with, the postmodern kind of cynicism described by Peter Sloterdjik, for instance.

My conclusion is that we should not abandon cynicism tout court nor think that the cynic is doomed to complacency or despair. Cynicism is a volatile quality that can become poisonous or explosive if handled too carelessly—but it can also be an effective sobering agent able to enliven our critical sensibilities and supply the energy we need to live well in a bad world.


This blog post draws on themes in a paper of mine in Hana Samaržija and Quassim Cassam’s forthcoming edited collection The Epistemology of Democracy.

Deneen, Patrick (2009) Democratic Faith (Princeton: Princeton Press).

Goldfarb, Jeffrey C. (1991) The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Sloterdijk, Peter (1983) Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. M. Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Small, Helen (2020) The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Stanley, Sharon A. (2012) The French Enlightenment and the Emergence of Modern Cynicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Vice, Samantha (2011) ‘Cynicism and Morality,’ Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 14: 169-184.

Picture: Crazy Cake


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