Are you an altruistic cynic (or a cynical cynic)?

Robin Hanson, (former professor of mine–always smart, sometimes hard to read, and very hard to please in an exam) wrote an excellent short piece on “cynical beliefs” and “cynical moods”. IMHO, some cynics are very smart and they actually become successful, but it is the extreme cynics–those who deprecate not only everything they see but also everything they do–who end up looking like losers.

The scornful sneering contemptuous cynical mood is not particularly attractive. So why does anyone ever adopt it? And why is such a mood associated with the cynical belief that hypocrisy and low motives are widespread?

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. It seems that the young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical. People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area. Things said in public tend to be less cynical than things said in private. People seem to prefer the young to be idealistic, and to discourage the teaching of cynicism. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.

Now how can we explain cynical moods? I can see two main explanations, one idealistic and one cynical, varying the motives and abilities they posit for the cynic.

The idealistic explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually high motives or insight. He was better able to see behind false appearances, and he was more shocked and disapointed to discover the low motives of others. Because he is unwilling to be hypocritical, he is less popular and so he succeeds and leads less. People dislike cynics because cynics expose their hypocrisy.

The cynical explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually low motives or ability. He can better see low motives because he has them in spades, and the cynic complains to belittle the success of others. That is, if he cannot win in some area then he will complain that the game is unfair, or that those who succeed are not really very praiseworthy. People do not like cynics because cynics are losers.