Tag Archives: Cynics

Naked Hypocrisy

In our society (as in most) we cover our genitals (& female breasts) with clothes, and usually talk and act as if they did not exist. At some level we know they exist, that they may be sexually aroused, and that if exposed others might better see our arousal and become aroused or disgusted. But it is usually considered extremely rude to expose one’s or another’s genitals, or to explicitly discuss their arousal.

Folks who violate such norms usually send bad signals, e.g., of their lack of awareness of social norms, their lack of self-control, and their low opinion of the sexually selectivity of others. If a small child were to expose their or another’s genitals, the social norm is to quickly get them to stop, perhaps make a quick smirk or joke, and then change the subject.  It is not so much that we don’t know we all know that genitals exist, can be aroused, or can induce arousal, as that we know pursing the subject looks bad.

This seems to me a helpful metaphor for understanding how people react to factoids that expose our hypocrisies. Consider common reactions to hearing that:

  • medicine has little correlation with health
  • few show much interest in medicine quality
  • police internal affairs report to police chiefs
  • college graduates rarely use what they learn
  • moral philosophers are not more moral
  • managed funds on average lose money
  • few give much to foreign or future poor
  • voters dislike politicians committed to promises

Most folks either grab at flimsy excuses to deny or excuse such things, or express mild polite interest and then change the subject.  They don’t want to act like the subject bothers them, but they also don’t want to pursue it.  Only oddballs excitedly plan how to fix such things, or analyze the exposed hypocrisies without making clear they don’t apply to present company. Socially savvy folks know that exposed hypocrisies, like exposed genitals, are usually best ignored.

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Mating Idealism

Who is the most idealistic about mating?  It seems to me it is children, post-menopausal women, and young male “nerds”, i.e., with especially weak current mating prospects. These folks talk as if they hold themselves and others to the highest standards of ideal love, while happening to speak when they have an especially low chance of fertile sex.

Coincidence?  I think not. Remember, sex is near; love is far.  In Far Thoughts Fit Ideals, I said:

We tend more to say we will act in accord with our verbally expressed and proudly embraced abstract ideals, e.g., individualism, collectivism, universalism, environmentalism, when we are put into the mental mode that was designed more for talking relative to doing – the far mode.  In contrast, when we are in our usual near mode … we tend to ignore those abstract ideals, … practically achieving our usual ends.
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Believing Your Age

Conan O’Brien’s departing message:

All I ask of you, especially young people … is one thing. Please don’t be cynical,” O’Brien said. “I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.

Why ask this especially of young folks?  After all, among the generations, young folks are the least likely to be cynical, i.e., to generally attribute low untrustworthy motives to others.  And why should the truth of a belief about the world depend on your age anyway?  If low motives are common, that fact is equally true for all age people.

Apparently, we like people to “act their age,” including having age-appropriate beliefs.  Young folks are supposed to be more idealistic, while old folks are more cynical.  Why?

This seems to me well explained by the standard econ concept of lock-in, where the costs of switching rise with the tenure of a relation.  Before you form a relation, you want to project high switching costs, while once you are locked in, you want to project low switching costs.

When you are idealistic about how others will treat you in your relationships, you become more attractive as a relation partner.  This helps you attract better partners.  Later in life, when you are attached to particular others via relations, you are better off being suspicious and cynical, as this gives you a negotiation edge when threatening to leave your partners, and discourages them from exploiting you.

HT Jennifer Ouellett.

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Why Read Old Thinkers?

Arnold Kling:

Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original? … Many great thinkers had some terrible ideas … Many … notoriously lacked clarity. … Much of what I do consists of attempts to contribute to the distillation process.

Tyler Cowen takes both sides, as usual:

I’m for distilling, for reasons Arnold offers, but I’m also for reading the originals. …  Secondary sources … do not capture or understand many of the original insights. … The errors of top thinkers are often more interesting … [They] set our minds racing and … [offer] interesting new questions. … Sometimes the value is in having read common sources … [They help] challenge or reexamine your world view or intellectual ethos. … If you rely on distillation for an inexact science, you will do best at capturing its exact parts.

Honestly, the main reason most people read famous thinkers is to raise their status via affiliation, and to prepare to signal how knowledgeable they are.  And yes reading old thinkers can, like travel, help you explore alien cultures.  But what if you actually wanted to learn about the subjects on which famous old people wrote?

It seems to me that if a famous old thinker were actually the best person to read today on some subject, then humanity just couldn’t be accumulating much insight on that topic.  Either progress there is extremely difficult, or humanity can’t or won’t retain new insights there.  And this famous thinker probably didn’t originate his insights; he or she was likely just the best presenter of much older insights.

Cynicism often seems this way to me.  Finding deep insight in 350 year old sayings by de La Rochefoucauld discourages me, as it suggests either that I will not be able to make much progress on those topics, or that too few will listen for progress to result.  Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but  were just not able to pass on?

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Student Idealism

We commonly rank motives from high to low, and distinguish “cynics,” who ascribe low motives to common behaviors, from “idealists,” who ascribe high motives. Official propaganda tends to be idealistic, including what we teach in schools. While basic concepts in economics and sociobiology can be understood at young ages, we teach them much later. This isn’t an accident:

Sarah Hrdy … questioned “whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level … The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. … Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this.”


Cynical descriptive conclusions about behavior in government threaten to undermine the norm prescribing public spirit. The cynicism of journalists – and even the writings of professors – can decrease public spirit simply by describing what they claim to be its absence.

Many say we are better off training kids to help others, even if we have to lie and suggest most folks do this.  Nietzsche said “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others.”  But this theory suggests local temptations to defect; I would want your kids, but not mine, to be taught to help others.  Instead, however, we see parents pushing their own kids to be taught idealism.  Why?

One reason I think is that moderate idealism is an attractive feature of potential associates; it suggests they will be helpful and cooperative to associates. For example:

Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head. Georges Clemenceau Continue reading "Student Idealism" »

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