Most people are generally not aware that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. Stories about things that are slowly reducing violent conflicts across the globe and saving lives are often fairly boring. Meanwhile, stories about death, destruction, and violence are shocking and interesting, drawing us in and sticking around in our memories for a long time. This misaligned perception of violence combined with our memory of shocking atrocities contributes to the general sense that people cannot be trusted and that the world is a dangerous place. It also makes us very cynical, and may cause us to dismiss people and places as shit-holes.
As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is important that we combat this cynicism. He writes, “the discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes.” A misperception on the levels of violence in LA, the terrorist group participation rate in Afghanistan, or the number of people dying in a war torn country far away from the United States builds cynicism. It can make people think that such places are bad and incapable of changing and advancing. It justifies expending fewer resources in helping and trying to reduce the violence, gang participation, and death. Better understanding that things in such places are getting better or are capable of getting better can combat this tendency.
Additionally, better understanding of actual trends in violence and death can help us be more effective when we do try to help. Pinker continues, “a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are.” Studying what actually reduces violence and saves lives will help us be effective. This is more important than receiving a warm glow from donating to groups that don’t demonstrate effectiveness. Rather than donating just for the sake of a warm glow, good information can help us make donations that we can be confident will make a big difference in the actual outcomes that people will experience. Combating cynicism and warm glow donating will be important to continue to improve the world, but we cannot do that if we only hear about violent headlines and not the slow, boring efforts to improve the planet.
Why do humans push so hard to amass as much wealth, fame, influence, and recognition as possible? Why do people who have become incredibly successful continue to push for more, and why do they often fight so hard to control the narrative around success? For many of us, the answer may seem to be cynical greed. That individuals who are incredibly wealthy are greedy, and they use cynicism to put others down while continuing to prop themselves up. They don’t really believe in the system and narrative they promote – they only believe in their own gain. However, Yuval Noah Harari suggests this may be an incomplete answer in his book Sapiens. Further, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler offer a better explanation in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain our insatiable appetite for more wealth, power, and influence.
I think it is pretty common these days to see the super wealthy as a flaw in the system or as cynical and greedy people who take advantage of the less fortunate. We imagine the super wealthy to be Scrooges who don’t believe in anything but their bank account, who they get to go to dinner with, and by the number of people who know their name. We see them as empty narcissists. But Yuval Noah Harari challenges this view by writing, “a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy. It does not take much to provide the objective and biological needs of Homo sapiens.” So if we can satisfy our basic biological needs relatively easily, why do so many people, not just the super wealthy, push to have so much? Cynical greed doesn’t seem to be the answer.
The pursuit of status to enhance our chances of passing our genes along, and then ensuring that subsequent generations of our genes are passed along, may be the answer. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make this argument in The Elephant in the Brain. Much of what we do, they argue, is some form of signaling to indicate our virtues or the advantages that mating with us or teaming up with us would offer. Having incredible wealth and material resources shows to other partners and the potential future partners of our decedents that we have resources to take care of them and ensure their genes are passed along successfully. Being incredibly famous and well connected shows that we are a powerful ally and that we have many compatriots that will help and protect us if needed. Again, this demonstrates that our genes are likely to be passed along for several generations since aid will be provided in emergencies or difficult situations.
We evolved these instincts when living in small tribal bands and small communities where a drought could leave our ancestors without enough food. A flood could have dislocated our tribe, and we would have been dependent on the help of others to live. Or, we could have had a feud with another member of our tribe or a neighboring tribe, and if we had enough allies that could rally to our defense, then we might survive rather than be killed. To pass their genes along, our ancestors had to show that they had resources to survive periods where resources were scarce. They had to show they had the right connections to be worthy of saving. And they had to be a strong ally to others so that they would also be protected if needed. We continue to push beyond our biological needs because our ancestors evolved to signal their worthiness and ability to pass their genes along. That is why we buy massive homes, electric hummers, and attend cultural events where we may see other important and powerful people. It is more than cynical greed that drives our desire for more.
Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.
I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.
Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves
Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small
in the course of history.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”
I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad. Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.
In my post from July 21st, 2016
, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.