The Nature of a Cynic

George Carlin, in one of his skits [see below], concluded with “fuck hope,” and went on to explain: “And please don’t confuse my point of view with cynicism -– the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be all right.”

Although Carlin was careful and precise about the use of language, I think he was wrong about cynicism.

Cynicism is in the ball park of pessimism and skepticism, so we must distinguish them. A skeptic is someone who expresses doubt about the truth of some claim. Let us say the claim is that everything will be all right. His attitude is one of uncertainty one way or the other; whereas the optimist is confident that everything will be all right, and the pessimist is equally confident that it will not. So, where does the cynic fit in?

It has to do with what one believes about human nature. There is a position believed by some called “psychological egoism.” This is the position that humans, by nature, are selfish and do everything with their personal interest in mind. If this position is correct, then so-called altruistic actions are only apparently so.  If now everything turning out all right depends on genuinely altruistic actions, then the cynic denied this possibility, and therefore is a convinced pessimist.

We must, in view of this, view the normal pessimist and optimist as both subscribing to the view that genuine altruistic actions are possible; with the pessimist saying that they are not probable in the situation; whereas the optimist saying that they are probable. And the cynic saying that real altruistic actions will not occur — not because they are improbable, but because they are impossible.

If the cynic then tells you that things will be all right, he is speaking ironically or sarcastically.  So, what Carlin is calling a real cynic, is an ironic or a sarcastic cynic.

George Carlin was both ironic and sarcastic at times, but he was never an ironic or sarcastic cynic. He did not believe that human doom was inevitable, only that it was probable.

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