Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cynicism plus

Two pieces on cynicism remind me of a theory I vaguely started to bake (I'm not sure I got as much as halfway) recently. The first is Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster on self-help and New Age spirituality. The second is Julian Baggini praising cynicism. Critchley and Webster make a lot of unsupported claims, or claims for which they provide no evidence (perhaps because this is The Stone and not anything more scholarly), such as this:
With the rise of corporations like Google, the workplace has increasingly been colonized by nonwork experiences to the extent that we are not even allowed to feel alienation or discontent at the office because we can play Ping-Pong, ride a Segway, and eat  organic lunches from a menu designed by celebrity chefs. 
This is probably true in the sense that the amount of Segway-riding at work has increased from none to some, but surely the kind of work environment described here is still extremely rare. Most of what they say feels true, albeit not entirely surprising. Does New Age spirituality need any more bashing? But there's some better stuff in there too:
A naïve belief in authenticity eventually gives way to a deep cynicism. A conviction in personal success that must always hold failure at bay becomes a corrupt stubbornness that insists on success at any cost. Cynicism, in this mode, is not the expression of a critical stance toward authenticity but is rather the runoff of this failure of belief. 
Cynicism, they imply, has at least two modes, one good one bad. It can express a critical stance toward the cult of authenticity (good) or be the mere runoff of a failure of belief (bad). The bad kind of cynicism is complacent, dishonest, and uncharitable. The good kind asks questions and evaluates, but is not purely negative.

Baggini focuses on what is good about cynicism. As he says: "The cynic, after all, is inclined to question people's motives and assume that they are acting self-servingly unless proven otherwise," and "They [i.e. cynics] are realists who know that the world is not the sun-kissed fantasy peddled by positive-thinking gurus and shysters." He acknowledges that one can take this too far, but defends the tendency of cynicism to help us avoid cons and fantasy. Fair enough.

I see cynicism as coming in many forms. The whole of economic theory seems basically cynical: people are all basically self-interested and motivated by desire for profit. That's a cynical view. And if it turns out that people don't behave so as to maximize their profits, then profit is reinterpreted as utility, and it is posited that whatever they did must have been done in an attempt to maximize their utility. That's a pretty cynical move. Marx is cynical about religion (among other things). Schopenhauer is cynical about love. Nietzsche is cynical about morality. Freud is cynical about motivation generally. All reductionism is a form of cynicism. And all of these forms of cynicism appeal to us (including me) partly because there seems to be so much truth in them.

But none of them seems wholly true. And it's the exceptions that are interesting. Human life would scarcely be worth thinking about if the cynics were completely right. We have to acknowledge the truth in what they say if we are to avoid naivete and fantasy. But everything really valuable and interesting seems to me to belong to the extra part of life, the part that resists reduction, the non-self-interested, the non-rational, the non-consequentialist, the non-biological or mechanical. And I suppose it's just that kind of gooey sentiment that is perhaps most likely of all to breed cynicism. Oh well.     


  1. http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/20056

  2. One neglected middle way between cynicism and idealism is to note that one can be cynical about cynicism itself. ("Don't come to me with your cynicism. Listen, haven't we already seen enough times what your so-called cynicism boils down to?") Similarly, one can be smugly above smugness, or proudly above pride, or make unoriginal claims to originality. Or even make large, sweeping claims about the inability of large, sweeping claims to offer answers.

    Self-reference of this type has always fascinated me on the general level, but cynicism about cynicism has often appeared to me as a kind of paradigm case of it. (I have a vague memory about this being related to my first readings of Rush Rhees a long time ago.)

    Your claim about "the whole of economic theory" is large and sweeping, by the way. I look forward to being contradicted, but I suspect that you psychologically associate utility with utilitarianism in moral philosophy, because the words have the same root. However, utility is an innocent word of ordinary language that was used for centuries and centuries before economic theory even emerged, and the OED in fact glosses it merely as 'fitness for some desirable purpose or valuable end'. The end can be selfish or unselfish, and the "desirable purpose" can be desired for selfish or unselfish reasons. It seems to me that any criticism of utility such as yours is inadvertently a criticism of desirable or valuable at the same time.

    But the real problem as I see it is that the very word utilitarianism was unfortunate to begin with, especially as it is usually used a either as a honorific or a term of abuse. Utility is an inescapable worry for everyone, not just utilitarians, so proudly announcing one's utilitarianism sounds just as odd as accusing someone else of utilitarianism.

    The same goes for consequentialism, by the way. If, say, Anscombe had succeeded in eradicating consequentialism from the world with her writings, that would of course have been a consequence of her writing them – a consequence, moreover, that she would dearly have liked to achieve. Similarly, in a hypothetical world where deontologists go to heaven and consequentialists to hell, getting someone to abandon consequentialism would have the consequence of her being saved from hell, which would be a consequence just like any other consequence of any other action. (This is not intended as just silly wordplay, by the way. I'm not very familiar with Anscombe's philosophy of religion, but that of her husband Peter Geach has been criticised by D. Z. Phillips as being tacitly consequentialist, the consequence in question just being salvation from hell in Geach's case instead of something else.)

  3. Yes, cynicism about cynicism seems quite possible, and bad if it means rejecting all cynical views in advance. I think that's really my point, and it's pretty banal: one should think about things critically enough to see through the many lies, distortions, myths, etc. that are out there (and there are very many of them), without becoming jaded or losing all faith in everything good. Be cynical enough, but not too cynical. Sounds like a truism.

    When I talk about the whole of economic theory I am being too sweeping, you're right. I mean the whole of standard economic theory, or perhaps even just Chicago-type economics. It is something that is extremely widespread and influential, but not every economist subscribes to it. I'm glad to be corrected.

    'Utility' is an innocent word, but the economists I'm thinking of do, unless I'm mistaken, assume the truth of the philosophical theory of utilitarianism, and a rather simple version of it at that. The best economic system is the one that maximizes the satisfaction of preferences, that sort of thing. Maybe that's true. But it's not a romantic or idealistic view. It seems OK to call it cynical, especially if while talking about what is supposedly best its proponents also claim not to be in a position to evaluate these preferences. Even without that, though, by 'cynicism' I mean something like the class of views that regard themselves as hard-headed and realist, especially the more reductive of these views. And the kind of economic theory I have in mind fits the bill pretty well, I think. One reason I say this is that I think many of its defenders would accept this characterization of it.

    As for consequences, they surely do matter. I don't think Anscombe or Geach would disagree. A major problem with consequentialism is that it treats intentions as irrelevant to ethics. It is possible to care about both intentions and consequences. In fact, I think that's normal. (I don't know Geach's work well enough to comment on it, but I did come across a quotation from it the other day that made me think something along the lines of D. Z. Phillips' thought as you describe it.)

  4. Well, if you look at (say) the list of Nobel laureates in economics, not half of them are Chicago types. There are at least as many people like Amartya Sen or George Akerlof, who are... well, let me just say that if Chicago economics is Quine or Russell, then they're Wittgenstein.

    It's just that Chicago economics has a presence in the media and in public debate that is quite out of proportion to its influence in academe. Which is probably what really matters in the end, and is infinitely depressing.

    It seems OK to call it cynical, especially if while talking about what is supposedly best its proponents also claim not to be in a position to evaluate these preferences.

    This is more or less it, but in a sense the causal arrow points the other way: saying you're not making any normative claims is one of the best ways of getting people to accept the normative claims you do in fact make. Chicago economists make a lot of them, but so far from being underwritten by the official self-image of economics, the only way they get to make the claims is by hiding disingenuously behind that official self-image and hoping that no one will notice.

    1. That seems spot on. The only bit I might quibble with is when you say that Chicago economics has a presence in the media, etc. that is quite out of proportion to its influence in academe. My sense is that it is very influential in academe as well. But my view might be distorted, I realize, by the media and by the economists I happen to know.

  5. And another thing. As Albert Hirschman has shown in detail in his classic The Passions and the Interests, when the view of society presupposed by economic theory initially emerged in the 18th century, it was offered completely uncynically – as an attempt to liberate people from its even worse predecessors. These emphasised inhumanly stringent codes of honour; manly military virtues; rigid and stagnant social hierarchies based on the system of estates of the realm; and whatnot.

    I don't want a bookkeeper peering over my shoulder, but if I have to choose between a bookkeeper and a theocratic priest and/or a bloody warlord, which had been the norm in human history before the age that gave us economic theory, I'll take the bookkeeper.

  6. Me too. One thing I wanted to say was that there is a lot of truth in economic theory. (Maybe that's going too far given my qualifications since about the kind of economic theory I mean, but there is some truth in it, at least.) That cannot be said, or would not be said by me, of the opinions of the average bloody warlord or theocratic priest.

    Another thing I wanted to say was that, while some people like to focus on theories that might not be 100% accurate but that tend to make correct predictions, I'm more interested in the things that make these theories false, in the exceptions that prove the rules. Real people might be mostly the way (some of) these theories present them as being, but they aren't completely the same. And vive la différence. This is not to say that people who develop or apply generalizations are wrong to do so. One kind of person revels in a theory that works 90% (or whatever) of the time, and is eager to apply it to new cases. Another kind of person is more interested in the 10% (or whatever) of cases. Not because they are a challenge to be overcome with a new and better model, but because they don't fit any model we have (and hopefully never will).

    I'm suspicious of my own attitude here, but I don't mean that I disown it. It sounds sentimental. But perhaps it can be given some kind of ethical justification. Scientific theories are meant to predict and control. It's obviously useful to be able to predict and control the world, and I'm not completely against all usefulness. But I think a completely predicted and controlled world would be a sad, even terrible, place. I don't want (total) control.

  7. I don't see what you say in the last paragraph as sentimental, but I see that it could be said (or thought) in a sentimental way. The exceptions to a rule, the "extra parts," are important. (Think of Murdoch on the importance of inner work/activity that is missed by the "behaviorist-existentialist" view she criticizes in The Sovereignty of Good.) Perhaps sentimentality would be to miss what is also important and (generally) true in the "cynical" position. Or, e.g., it would be sentimental to gush over Eliot's remark in the "The Dry Salvages" (Four Quartets) that "we had the experience but missed the meaning," but to fail to pay attention to the darkness of the surrounding context in that poem--"Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony/ (Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,/ Having hopes for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,/ Is not the question) are likewise permanent/ With such permanence as time has."

    1. Thanks. Murdoch is a good, and helpful, example.

  8. http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/3222