Many arguments are called ‘cynical,’ but is there anything that is common to them? Is there a general form of cynical argument?
One type of cynical argument is a kind of reductio ad absurdem, a proof by contradiction, to discredit a premise. The first step is to take the premise and associate it with some worldview.
- Assume P. (premise)
- P holds under worldviews W. (Cynical Generalization)
Then, the cynic discredits those worldviews.
- Worldviews W are not the sort of views we want. (ethical, logical or other valuation)
- Therefore the premise P is rejected because it leads to absurd consequences. (Contradiction 2, 3)
What is unique here is the use of worldviews. The cynic generalizes from the premise to associated worldviews. Instead of finding something wrong with the premise itself, the cynic objects to any line of thought that leads to the premise.
Therefore, the criticism mounted here is existential: The cynic objects to people’s way of life, their existences. In doing so, the cynic changes the standards of evaluation. Though the premise may be unassailable on its own, when it is placed in the wider context of life, it no longer remains innocent or safe. By focusing the argument in this way, the premise can be seen as a symptom of affliction, an unwanted life—an absurdity.
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I find this argumentation style particularly interesting because of the Cynical Generalization step. The generalization is something like modal. However, it is not a generalization to possible worlds, but to possible lives. The cynic considers all possible lives that include affirming the premise and asks whether it is possible or desirable to live those lives.
Since we do reject different ways of life all the time that we feel are not for our selves, this argument style cannot be dismissed as flippant. Moreover, it is an extremely powerful argument: as historical cynics have shown, if you are willing to forgo the trappings of society, you are freer to reject its laws and conclusions.