An Argument Against Intellectual Cynicism


Recently I have met various people and read about various characters (particularly villains in The Brothers Karamazov) who are cynics. I think most people are cynics to some degree and in some way, and some kinds of cynicism in small doses can be alright. Its radical, widespread, or categorical cynicism that I think is damaging to human well-being. Consequently, I am inclined to wonder if there are any good arguments against certain of the more damaging kinds of cynicism. Below, I will give an argument against what I call “mild intellectual cynicism” and “extreme intellectual cynicism”. If successful these arguments will show that mild and extreme intellectual cynics should probably give up their brand of cynicism.

Let’s define mild intellectual cynicism as the view that it is okay to reject an intellectual position if there is vice in the adherents of that position to degree x. Intellectual positions would include such things as the theory of eugenics, classical liberalism, Islam, the cult of the golden guinea pig, and analytic philosophy.

By vice I mean any kind of morally bad habit; and I suppose that this could include particular actions too, so lets say we can substitute “sin” for vice. Some examples would be if, for instance, the head of an ideological organization was found embezzling funds, or if a minister in the Presbyterian Church was discovered to be an adulterer. (maybe we could even add intellectual vices–stupidity, ignorance, whatever–in addition to moral ones) Its hard to identify how much is too much–at what point does a position become discredited or an institution corrupt? After one vice? After a majority fall into vice? Lets leave this question open for the time being, and call the degree of vice that makes it legitimate to reject a view “degree x”.

Finally, when I say “okay to reject” I mean that it is a morally permissible (fits with moral norms) and intellectually permissible (fits with the norms of rationality) action to dissociate oneself from or to disbelieve in the doctrine of an intellectual position.

Extreme intellectual cynicism is the view that it is obligatory to reject an intellectual position if there is vice in the adherents of that position to degree x. The main difference between this view and mild cynicism is that it is not intellectually and morally permissible, but rather *obligatory* to reject the view that has vicious adherents.

Note that intellectual cynicism is different from institutional cynicism; I’m not trying in this post to argue against people who leave groups because of the moral failures of their leaders or members.

Now lets think for a second about extreme intellectual cynicism. If extreme cynicism is right, then we are obligated to reject a view if it has a bad adherent(s). But then this creates a problem: it might be the case that extreme cynicism is self-refuting. For extreme intellectual cynicism is an intellectual position, and its adherents are merely human. But with all those mortal believers in extreme cynicism, isn’t it likely that many of them have fallen into vice? I know a lot of disillusioned people who don’t really try to keep up with their own standards of morality. It seems probable to me (though I can’t prove it) that most values you could insert in “x” would yield the conclusion that extreme cynicism has reached level x–that its members have enough moral (and perhaps intellectual) problems to the point where it should be rejected. So

P1. Extreme intellectual cynicism is true (the view that it is obligatory to reject an intellectual position if there is vice in the adherents of that position to degree x). (assumption)

P2. Therefore if an intellectual position has vice in its adherents to degree x, then it is obligatory to reject that intellectual position. (from 1 by definition)

P3. Extreme intellectual cynicism is an intellectual position. (definition)

P4. There is vice in the adherents of extreme cynicism to degree x (assumption)

C. Therefore it is obligatory to reject extreme cynicism.

It follows by reduction to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum) that extreme cynicism is false.

Now, what about mild intellectual cynicism? Lets say I am a mild intellectual cynic. I decide to reject the capitalist ideal based on the malpractice that is present among adherents to the method–capitalist intellectuals, entrepreneurs, etc. etc. I then find myself in the position of the mild cynic, dissociated from any kind of ideal about the economy. I then learn that mild cynics aren’t the nicest (or smartest) people; some of them have done some pretty bad stuff, and they have reached point “x”. So it can be argued that

P1. Mild cynicism is true (the view that it is permissible to reject an intellectual position if there is vice in the adherents of that position to degree x). (assumption)

P2. Therefore if an intellectual position has vice in its adherents to degree x, then it is permissible to reject that intellectual position. (from 1 by definition)

P3. Mild cynicism is an intellectual position. (definition)

P4. There is vice in the adherents of mild cynicism to degree x (assumption)

C. Therefore it is permissible to reject mild cynicism.

Now, if it is permissible to reject mild cynicism, that doesn’t mean I have to go and leave that view; I could stay a mild cynic, because I’m not *obligated to leave*. But think about this: the mild cynic is unlikely to tolerate or permit inconsistency between his principles and actions (hypocrisy=bad; that’s part of the motivation for many cynicisms). But if the mild cynic gave up on capitalism because of the vice of its adherents, and then finds himself deliberating over whether to reject mild cynicism because it reaches the threshold of degree x of vice in its adherents, it seems he would best live out his ideals by being consistent–and rejecting mild cynicism. We could argue as follows:

1. Cynics are obligated to be consistent. (assumption)

2. It would be inconsistent to reject position y because its adherents had degree x of vice, and then not reject some other position because its adherents had degree of vice x. (assumption, based vaguely on what it means to be consistent)

C. Therefore it would be inconsistent to not reject mild cynicism if one had already left a belief system based on its adherents having degree x of vice.

Hence, even mild cynicism is untenable.


People who reject an intellectual position because its adherents have moral problems are probably inconsistent–if my crucial assumption holds: that extreme and mild cynics as a group have degree of vice x. Because I think it likely that they do, I am inclined to think that cynicism is not just dangerous to life and human flourishing (not to mention union with God) but self-defeating. It is (probably) a self-refuting position.

Now lets see what I can think up about institutional cynicism for next time…


13 Responses to “An Argument Against Intellectual Cynicism”

  1. bríde Says:

    “Cynics are obligated to be consistent.”

    It seems to me that mild skeptics might not be obligated to do anything. If they are not, this follows from the language in which their view is couched. You say that it is permissible for them to dismiss a position based on degree x of vice, but that does not mean they always have to dismiss the position. They are entitled to be arbitrary, particularly if they affirm some kind of dialetheism.

    However, if they do, like most people, accept the law of non-contradiction, I think that your conclusions are probably correct.

    That’s my best off-the-top-of-my-head criticism, but I’ll see if I can think of anything better.

  2. MG Says:


    Let me correct myself first: I used the word “skeptic” twice in my post, but meant “cynic”; I have corrected those errors.

    Now, assuming you meant “the mild cynic might not be obligated to do anything” I would probably disagree. The whole point of these kinds of intellectual cynicism is that they are based on the assumption that other people have a moral obligation to behave a certain way. There’s no reason why the same principles shouldn’t apply to the cynic who is judging others and saying they have failed to live up to their obligations.

    Furthermore, it might be the case that implicit in the permissibility of rejecting a position if the adherents are immoral to degree x, there is an obligation to not reject a position if the adherents are immoral to a degree less than x.

  3. bríde Says:

    Haha – yes, I’m meant “cynic” not “skeptic”. I don’t know why I wrote that.

    Anyways, when you’re talking about permissibility, rather than obligation, it seems like the deciding factor in dismissing a position is preference. A mild cynic would use the permissibility of dismissal as an excuse to do what she already wanted to do.

    I view the extreme cynic as operating on the “assumption that other people have a moral obligation to behave a certain way”. The mild cynic is probably just trying to find reasons to dismiss something they already don’t like. Again, I think this might only work within a dialetheistic framework, since it is inconsistent according to traditional views.

  4. bríde Says:

    Actually, perhaps I was on to something more substantial when I noted that the deciding factor is preference.

    Let’s say we have two competing positions – A and B – and adherents of each have degree x of vice. It is currently equally permissible dismiss both of them under mild cynicism, and would be inconsistent to do otherwise, since all else is equal. However, let’s also say that the cynic prefers position A to position B. This preference makes the cases unequal. Since the two have the same degree of vice and are opposed to one another, the cynic has the option of choosing one over the other on the basis of preference.

    Maybe that works…

  5. pdve Says:

    Bride –

    I don’t think it does.

    That the advocates of positions A & B are vicious becomes irrelevant when what adjudicates between the positions is no longer an assessment of A & B and their corresponding viciousness but a completely different actor and their expressing of preference to the positions. This third actor and their preferences becomes the only elements that cause the decision. It becomes ad hoc to include mention of vice at all.

    Even if (1) were false, this suggestion works only if ‘preference’ has epistemic status. If preference is just an agent’s fancy for a particular idea or object then it would be incorrect to say that this isolates a permissible scenario for cynicism. This is because if preference is a non-epistemic mental state, then it is an unnecessary factor to consider when evaluating disagreement between two competing positions. It follows then, that it is not within one’s epistemic rights to favor one position over another if all evidential support is equal. If, however, by preference you are implicitly suggesting that their exists a disparity in justification for each position, and the locution ‘preference’ but expresses an agents recognition of this disparity, then preference would have a place in a theory of rationality. But, if this is the case then we’re back where we started: the evaluation of A & B is based on their evidential support and not the vices of their advocates.

    However, I think if we can consider intellectual virtues and vices, then a mild form of cynicism may be permissible rationally. Say I come to an impasse where I have to choose between a position X and a position Y. The justification these position enjoy is contingent on the testimony of their advocates. So when i’m choosing between assenting to X, Y, or suspending belief on both, I have to consider the reliability of each advocate. Consider further: the advocate of X, (A)X, is ridden with intellectual vice. He is not a coherent, careful, or open-minded thinker. Conversely, the advocate of Y, (A)Y, is very intellectually virtuous. She is coherent, careful, and very open-minded. In such a case, where testimony is what constitutes the justification for X & Y, assenting based on (A)Y’s testimony seems rational where assenting based on (A)X’s testimony is not. This only works because intellectual virtues and vices have epistemic status. Similarly, this means that moral virtues are mostly irrelevant to rationality. This is because most moral virtues are non-epistemic with the exception of say honesty.

  6. bríde Says:

    Fair enough.

    I thought what I was saying was rather tenuous, at best. Thanks for showing me how.

  7. MG Says:


    Thank you for gracing our blog with your presence!

    I agree with your point about the intellectually unvirtuous person whose testimony you rely on… that’s an excellent point.

    And I suppose that because cynicism is not based on testimony, it would be a safe position to hold (as opposed to inconsistent) even if some cynics are intellectually vicious.

  8. neochalcedonian Says:

    This comment is unrelated to the above post, but I’d like to see one of the contributors here do an analysis of St. John Damascene’s argument for the existence of God in Book I, Ch. 3 of the Exposition.

  9. bríde Says:

    I’ll do that soon, if no one else is itching to.

  10. MG Says:

    Neo and Zach–

    Actually, that’s the kind of itch I like to scratch. Considering I’m doing a series (that has been put on hold for other stuff…) on theistic arguments in the Fathers, and I’ve read St. John recently, I would love to do an analysis.

    Zach, if you wanna co-write then you’re more than welcome.

  11. bríde Says:

    Ok. We can talk about that some time, but only if you start spelling my name correctly. ;p

  12. MG Says:

    Hmm lets have a compromise. Howabout I let you start spelling my name incorrectly?

  13. bríde Says:

    Ok, Maggie.

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