Moral Relativism and Cynicism

Pessimism and cynicism are widely regarded as smart, while aspiration to change and improvement is often dismissed as naïve (and bitterly attacked). The reason is obvious: these are mere justifications of one’s own immorality (active or by inaction).

Cynicism is a reaction to helplessness, not the cause of inaction. It is a way to pose as strong or wise despite one’s own moral capitulation. A form of “moral Stockholm syndrome”, often triggered by the lack of control and resignation. It also makes disengagement with the regime less likely due to the sense of complicity.

One should wonder why pessimism and cynicism is not widely condemned and why it is not socially shamed.

Cynicism is one of the sneakiest of the pathologies of the authoritarian frame of mind. Posing as rightly suspicious and world-weary is usually interpreted as a sign of wisdom – but it is extremely erosive to social capital.

The underlying moral relativism is even more damaging. It suggests that one should not comply with rules, unless it is backed by force – because no one else does. It is usually accompanied by an implicit (often explicit) ridiculing of idealism, or the belief that things can be improved and people are to be trusted.

The reason of bending one’s own moral compass is often a reaction to feeling helpless. One way out of the cognitive dissonance is the Nuremberg defence, replacing moral imperatives with the necessity to follow command and the law. The other is renouncing moral imperatives and blaming human nature for it.

Once it happens, it also creates a downward spiral.

The consequences are ubiquitous. A study of East and West Germans after the fall of the Berlin wall provides an illustration of how political regimes corrupt individual morality – long after they are gone. (Ariely 2014) A system against which the individual feels powerless can corrupt one’s morals – and the damage cannot be undone without very conscious effort and reasoning.

Morality is one of the first things we outsource to government, along with physical protection and the provision of a national identity. Then we find it harder and harder to consider each other to be honest in the absence of law enforcement. (See the absence of trust) Form this perspective, it hardly matters whether it was grabbed by an authoritarian regime or voluntarily surrendered to a pampering welfare regime, whether it was blamed on warfare or welfare.

Many thinkers have spared a thought to the layers and possible motives of morality. The exact reason we refrain from committing a crime is important. In a very simplified distinction:

  • Do we refrain from crime because we consider it immoral?
  • Or because we are concerned about our reputation? (Implying that we would do it if we would not get caught.)
  • Or do we behave morally simply because of the certainty of punishment? (Implying that we would do it if we could get away with it.)

The latter spells no good for the state of society, yet we tend to regard people like this. State-enforcement of moral behaviour is justified with Type 3 people in mind (and is optimised on them). It does not reward a more internalised sense of morality and even makes one feel stupid to comply when punishment is nor forthcoming. Does this approach encourage this kind of superficial morality?

When we outsource our morals to be enforced by law, we place our moral compass outside of ourselves.  As a consequence, we find it difficult to tell the difference between immoral and illegal (consider victimless crimes). With a thick set of regulations, one will eventually fall for the sentiment that whatever is not explicitly banned, must be allowed – with all its implications.

But is it better when we only care for our reputation – and not the actual moral thing to do? (Type 2) By this logic what does the birth of mass surveillance mean for our morals? We may get more compliant when we know we are being watched – but it shrinks the territory of real moral behaviour (Type 1). Surveillance is justified with these kind of people in mind – it therefore reproduces this kind of mentality.

Surveillance also excels at finding out victimless crimes as well as real ones. Given our sense of morality being confused by what is legal and what is not, this means an absolute reign of the legal – which then has to cope with no oversight apart from itself. Is state-enforced morality (law enforcement and surveillance) crowding out the real thing?

State-enforced morality is a fact cynics thrive on. It justifies them and their own dark views, it thus erodes social capital and discredits the proponents of the necessity of a personal moral compass. With so many rules to keep in mind one can be forgiven not to spare time to keep catalogue of the subtle differences between moral and law.

By the ever expanding realm of surveillance, secrets become a rarity – and suspicious. At some point citizens start to enforce transparency on each other – but not on their elected leaders and public servants, because that would endanger the state.[1]

Consider in parallel the reporting systems of former Communist states and countries like North Korea. People are expected to report on one another – in which the act of reporting (and being reported on by people who are closest) is the most demoralising, regardless of the quality of the reports. Understanding the role of a private sphere (or the lack thereof) on behaviour (and morals) provides an insight into the mechanism of political control and dissent.

(This chapter is a work in progress.)


[1] Observe the conflicting imperatives of a country in isolation or as part of its international environment. When devising the ideal constitutional set-up, Founding Fathers have acknowledged the importance of public service to remain public and transparent – in order to avoid abuse of power. There is, however, a conflicting argument: that the presence of foreigners makes it necessary to keep secrets from the population. In a world where there are other communities, leaders can successfully argue that their own dealings remain secret while the population must come under total surveillance – both blamed on foreigners and the existence of other countries.


6 thoughts on “Moral Relativism and Cynicism

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