Kind cynicism

I am wondering if one can be both kind & cynical at the same time? Should we be developing kindness and weakening the cynicism or can they be mutually supportive?


What do you mean by cynicism? To expect the worst all the time?


I associate cynicism with the feeling that it isn’t worth trying to help or improve things.

Pardon me, I should have clarified further, by cynicism here I mean having a general tendency to believe that self-interest motivates most people in their affairs and I was wondering how to approach this outlook with kindness. I don’t expect the worst all the time by any means, I’m struggling to find a more precise word without the negative connotations of expecting the worst.


Perhaps. Wikipedia says it is: “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; scepticism.”

With the addition of kindness, I want to know if we can & should temper this outlook somewhat.


An interesting lesson I learned, from Ajahn Brahm, though I am sure it is shared by many, is that what we look for we find. If one is looking for self interest, greed etc, one will see that everywhere. But it needs to be tempered with looking for examples of kindness, generosity etc, then one will find that. Just remember that some environments contain more of one than the other. So to be balanced, one needs to be skillfull about the environment/s in which one chooses to spend time.

with metta :smiley:


I really like what @mpac said!

I’d like to add that the majority of us - most of the time - are motivated by self-interest. It’s natural.

So it’s about two things in such a situation:

  1. Is my own self-interest aligned with things that are true, leading to peace, more kindness, freedom and happiness for myself?

  2. Can I view other people’s and my own interest in my own affairs with wisdom - within the framework and light of the Dhamma? Furthermore, can I view our self-interest with not just metta (loving-kindness), but also with mudita (altruistic/sympathetic joy at their joy - without too much judgement), with karuna (compassion, and a type of compassion which peacefully acknowledges the truth of suffering) and with at least some degree of upekkha (equanimity)?

Nice question Paul :slight_smile:


One could argue cynicism makes assumptions about people’s motives which you can’t really know unless you have psychic powers. But if you run on the Buddha’s outlook that people want happiness and don’t want to suffer, you can see things more clearly and less judgementally. People may do very ignorant and misguided things in reaction to wanting happiness and not wanting to suffer of course.

This approach is more skillful because it doesn’t put limitations on your mind that cynicism does.


Really interesting question, Paul; equally some really good answers, too. Thanks all.

For my, two pennies worth, determining if different ‘brands’ of cynicism are possible (eg. kind, hard-hearted and whatever else) might be supported by considering the function/s of cynicism.

Off the top of my head the first function of cynicism would be to protect oneself from other people’s disappointing behaviour and a way of figuring out how to ‘appropriately’ (within the context of a world shaped by greed, hatred and delusion) fit in to ones social circumstance. Some may articulate this as a strategy for developing realistic expectations/forecasting models to safeguard oneself - I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the realistic part as (as nodded towards in mpac’s reply) cynicism can just as much distort ones view as anything else, however, do think that maybe there’s something reasonable/worthwhile/useful that can be pulled out of this.

To take a topical example, what I’m most surprised by with the whole recent Cambridge Analytica blow up isn’t the questionable practices they employ, but rather how surprised everyone else seems to be that they do employ such practices. I’d say it’s for cynicism that the emerging news didn’t wildly disrupt my predictive power in this case. Critically, for the point at hand though, this in itself, doesn’t say anything about my attitude towards the participants of this particular news story. As it turns out, I 1) understand that in a conditioned world, their given conditions makes their given action reasonable from their perspective (& 1b) I’m not beyond such behaviour) 2) don’t hold anything against them 3) don’t overlook their simultaneous capacity for decency, kindness and such, nor their vulnerability and suffering.

Tying this more directly into the original question, I think, yes, it is possible to have harder and softer forms of cynicism and, likewise, more useful and more distorting forms of cynicism. That said, I’d sooner spend my time advocating the cultivation of Right View rather than rightish cynicism. :wink:


If cynicism is acting out of self interest, and one knows or believes kamma is part of how things happen, and that intention causes kamma, and that as a human animal one intrinsically tries to control environment and one inevitably falls short and one is intrinsically a social creature then

acting in self interest includes not harming, includes helping and improving and never stopping efforts until life itself ceases

and self interest includes every element of the 8 fold path

and self interest cannot be in competition except with a non lasting ever changing self

and self is incomplete without non self.

This takes one a fair way towards nibanna, until it is realized as already.

Maybe :smiley:


Perhaps altruism is only and always an illusion.

:smiley: The absolutely Buddhist perspective :smiley:

If your looking for trouble …

samsara is now and nirvana is now

The building has left Elvis … :wink:

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… perhaps tempering kindness with some cynicism is useful. For example, in seeking to do or in doing good, is it possible to do harm?

in seeking to avoid harm, can one do better?

A practical example which gives me difficulty: what does one do with deluded or ignorant people? specifically, those in ochre robes?

without a touch of cynicism, is harm through good intentions and acts not inevitable? what are alternatives?

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If you say that cynicism is about self-interest, then all but the arahants are not immune.

This discussion also has me reflecting on something both Ajahn Brahm and Ven. Dhammajīva MT say (in their own ways). That we all interfere way too much in things. We all have to have our ‘sticky fingers’ in everything, yet when we leave things alone they run much smoother. The most important thing is to care, not to cure.

Is this the kind of ‘kind cynicism’ you were thinking about?


:smiley: it is now! TY. But perhaps that was specifically to the OP.


I suspect that a lot of what passes for altruism is really enlightened self-interest.

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It’s tricky. Presumably a kindly attitude would involve the acceptance that people, including ourselves, are motivated by self-interest, at least some of the time.

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I’ve checked the wiki article and especially references, and they were all based on western thinking, so my humble guess is that most of them wouldn’t recognize “atruism” or “unconditional love” even if it jumped up and took away their heads

It’s all about heart, and that language is silent and obvious to those practicing it, but a bit of a puzzle for over mentally thinkers and brainers

Sedaka sutta, I guess?

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