I am a cynic. I have a lock on my front door, because I don't trust people not to steal my stuff given the chance. I shop around, because I don't expect shops to sell me CDs at the most reasonable price they can afford. I check up on my children because I know they won't do what they're told if I don't.
Thanks to evolution, we're as good as it suits us to be
A friend of mine tells me that people are fundamentally good and honest - but she still keeps a list of everyone she lends a book to, and never fails to check her change.
The idea that people are basically motivated by self-interest is not a pleasant one - that advantage goes to my friend's philosophy. But it is true, I think.
In years gone by, this was generally accepted, because the church told us that since "the Fall of Man" humans were selfish to the root and needed redemption. Today evolutionary biology repeats the same message, without the remedy. Natural selection favours those who are best at looking after their own interests and those of their offspring. Society has evolved because cooperation and mutual kindness (within limits) benefit the individual better than throwing rocks at everyone.
How much of what we call being a good person is actually smart self-interest? I give selflessly to all my friends on their birthdays - and expect them to do exactly the same when mine comes round. Those who are honest we trust, those who are kindly we like, those who steal lose our respect and their jobs.
Those who are honest we trust, those who are kindly we like, those who steal lose our respect and their jobs
Of course this "the sun shines on the righteous" system has as many loopholes as a fishing net, and that's why most of us get our fair share of sunlight without being shining examples of righteousness.
All the evidence is that we are only as good as it suits us to be. How else can you explain why in 2003 humans beat our previous record high for carbon emissions by 13%, despite the fact that the World Health Organisation says global warming already kills a conservative 150,000 people a year? Why else would a mere 2.4% of UK food and drink spending go on organic produce, and a fraction of even that figure on fair trade goods?
How many adverts say "Buy this. It may not be as cool or as efficient as the competition, but you know it's morally right"? Advertisers appeal to our self-interest, because they find that's what gets our wallets out.
Cynicism makes us less easy prey for advertisers
In 1971, Prof. Philip Zimbardo of Stamford University ran a psychological experiment, which involved groups of "peacenik" student volunteers being put a Big-Brother-house-type prison. They were divided into guards and prisoners, dressed in uniforms and masks and given numbers instead of names.
They were left unsupervised and supposedly unobserved. The experiment had to be called off after six days, because the "guards" were physically and mentally assaulting their wards, with midnight strip-searches and toilet cleaning by hand (literally).
The moral being, that we aren't moral beings. Take away the advantage in being decent humans, and we aren't.
The importance of cynicism is not just that it's true. It's that recognising human selfishness gives us a chance to do something about it.
It is those who do not trust global corporations to protect the interests of their Third-World employees and neighbours who campaign for a fairer world. It is those who do not expect businesses and individuals to be environmentally friendly when left to their own devices who work out incentives and restrictions to cut our reckless pollution.
Take away the advantage in being decent humans, and we aren't
If our society is becoming ever more cynical, then we are less easy prey for the manipulations of advertisers and filmmakers, politicians and media. We listen with sharper ears and read with smarter eyes, which helps us to divide the truth from the propaganda - just so long as we haven't become incapable of believing anything.
The First World War was fought with the utter trust and unquestioning support of the British people, and eight and a half million soldiers died in the four years of futile, indefensible butchery. The 2003 Iraq War was fought with less public trust than any other modern war, and about 6,000 combatants have died. Even if there are no winners in war, that arithmetic must in part suggest a small victory for cynicism.