A conversation with a friend led to this question: is it unethical to be cynical?
On the surface it would seem that one can hold most any outlook on life they choose without much disruption to their moral sense. It’s an outlook, not an action and ethics is about what we do, not how we view life.
But let’s take a closer look.
My dictionary defines cynicism as “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.”
Right there, “…a general distrust of the integrity or motives of others.” How can we work to build long-term trusting relationships with family, friends, co-workers and others if we maintain a cynical view? If we seek to be fair, how can we be open-minded and impartial, if we’re “scornful or jaded”? Moreover, how can we allow others to help us, if we’re always waiting for “the other shoe to drop”?
“Cynicism,” writes Yale professor Stephen Carter, “is the enemy of civility: it suggests a deep distrust of the motives of our fellow passengers, a distrust that ruins any project that rests, as civility does, on trusting others even when there is risk. So, because we no longer trust each other, we place our trust in the vague and conversation-stifling language of ‘rights’ instead.”
We need to cultivate a culture of cooperation. We need to focus less on rights and more on the responsibilities we have to each other. So many times people fail to consider the effect their decisions have on others. In an interview about the 1996 Everest tragedy, climber Jon Krakauer observed, “…we were a bunch of individuals who liked each other… and got along well enough, but we never had this feeling that we were all in it together. We were all in it for ourselves when we should have been in it for each other.”
Cynicism is a kind of ethical bigotry, a prejudicial attitude that promotes rationalizations like, “Everybody does it; you have to fight fire with fire; they owe it to me.”
Intolerance – political, cultural and religious – is the greatest issue facing us today. Intolerance excludes us from the world. It takes us away from our connection to humanity and leads us down a path to fear, hate and conflict.
Tolerance opens our minds and hearts to others. Acceptance leads us to greater understanding and peace. When we consistently practice cynical thinking it erodes the ideals of fairness, honesty and respect, because it presupposes a lack of trust in an individual or institution and leads to fear and division.
Today, more than ever, we need cooperation, not division.
Don’t allow the unethical actions of others to color your view of those who work hard, play by the rules and help others.
Maybe Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart says it best:
“You just have to keep trying to do good work, and hope that it leads to more good work. I want to look back on my career and be proud of the work, and be proud that I tried everything. Yes, I want to look back and know that I was terrible at a variety of things.”