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Cynicism and Morality


Our attitude towards cynicism is ambivalent: On the one hand we condemn it as a character failing and a trend that is undermining political and social life; on the other hand, we are often impressed by the apparent realism and honesty of the cynic. My aim in this paper is to offer an account of cynicism that can explain both our attraction and aversion. After defending a particular conception of cynicism, I argue that most of the work in explaining the fault of cynicism can be done by referring not to the cynic’s beliefs about humanity, but to the attitude cultivated as a response to that belief. This attitude is hostile to the virtues of faith, hope and charity, upon which relationships and our sense of moral community depend. In conclusion, I suggest that holding the cynical belief is itself immoral, and that cynicism is disrespectful and destructive of morality.

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  1. Wilde 1969, p.134.

  2. The only article I could find was an analysis of the ‘rhetoric’ of cynicism, by George Yoos (1985), which I discuss in Section 2 below.

  3. De Quincey 1827, p.2.

  4. La Rochefoucauld 1959, maxims 235, 305, 605.

  5. These need not be only historical or (auto)biographical. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1958) and Alex Garland’s The Beach (1997) could equally be read as exercises in cynicism.

  6. Levi 1987, p.32.

  7. Wiesel 2006, p. 100. The whole terrible incident, pp.100-2, is an extended description of the obliteration of humanity.

  8. Wiesel 2006, p. 52.

  9. Wiesel 2006, p. 54.

  10. Yoos 1985, p.55.

  11. Wiesel 2006, p.68.

  12. Yoos 1985, p.60.

  13. Ibid.

  14. I have been unable to discover the occasion for this remark. It is quoted on The Quotations Page,, last accessed 30/06/2010.

  15. Yoos 1985, p.60.

  16. For example, see Jeffrey Goldfarb (1991).

  17. Wolf 1982, p.419.

  18. Forster 1973, p.58.

  19. Ibid.

  20. On the different kinds of friendship in Aristotle, see (1976, Book 8).

  21. There are obvious psychological costs to reacting passionately, some of which were noted earlier. My claim is that despite these costs, such reactions are in most situations still more appropriate than cynicism. This does not however mean that we should prolong these reactions to the point of debility or quietism.

  22. Henry James explores the wrenching consequences of this realisation in The Princess Casamassima (1936).

  23. Unless it is a kind of ‘premature disappointment’ in the future, as Sidney J. Harris’s definition has it: “A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future”. Quoted on The Quotations Page,, last accessed 30/06/2010.

  24. For a different account of the rationality and necessity of hope, see the fascinating study by Lear (2006).

  25. See Bovens (1999) for a secular account of hope; Cottingham (2006) discusses the difficulties of secularising these virtues.

  26. We could hope, I suppose, that a better state of affairs be realised through some non-moral means—perhaps interference with our DNA or the development of the übermensch (to use Thad Metz’s examples). Perhaps we could improve ourselves in that way and could hope for it. This, however, is faith in our ingenuity rather than our capacity for good, and unless we have the latter, we cannot be guaranteed the former will be put to good use.

  27. Wiesel 2006, p.41 (ellipsis in the original). Compare Levi (1987, p.47), where the narrator is told by Steinlauf, “a man of good will”: “that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts”; “we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization”. For the sake of “dignity and propriety” we must retain “the power to refuse our consent”.

  28. La Rochefoucauld 1959, maxim 238.

  29. On both these aspects of immoral belief, see the special edition of Philosophical Papers (2204) on immoral believing, edited by Jones and Martin (2004).

  30. Adams 1995, p.75.

  31. Adams 1995, p.89.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Adams 1995, p.86, and on revising versus abandoning beliefs, see p.93.

  34. Adams 1995, p.87.

  35. Ibid.

  36. On this point, see Diamond (1978) and Gaita (2000).

  37. On the importance for morality of striving for a goal greater than mere “minimal moral compliance”, see Adams (1995, p.83). Also see Blum (1988) and Norton (1988).

  38. Thanks to Garrett Cullity for pressing me on the issues explored in this final section.

  39. From her book, The Fragility of Goodness (1986).


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This paper has benefited immensely over many years from discussions with people too numerous to mention. But thanks are due, especially, to Ward Jones and Thad Metz, and to Garrett Cullity, Ilya Farber, Veli Mitova, Brian Mooney and Mark Nowacki.

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Correspondence to Samantha Vice.

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Vice, S. Cynicism and Morality. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 14, 169–184 (2011).

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  • Cynicism
  • Morality
  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Love