40 votes

Cynicism is a tired trope

Cynicism is the bastard cousin of skepticism. While optimists look for the silver lining, cynics can't fail to see
the fly in the ointment and true skeptics are somewhere in the middle. Cynicism is an overwhelming trend in internet forums. The most upvoted reactions are usually the more pessimistic (regardless of factuality), and seemingly virtuous attitudes are immediately met with assumptions of bad faith.

Cynicism is tiresome and can very well lead to false conclusions.

This may be unlikely, but paradigms can be improved, governments can adopt better policies, corporations can act for the good of society, billionaires can be virtuous philanthropists, assholes can learn to be nice, and bigots can learn to respect diversity. We should be absolutely skeptical of sudden changes of attitude, but indiscriminate cynicism creates an environment that does not reward positive changes, and I don't think that's in the best interest of a community.

EDIT: I feel I need to clarify that cynicism is not equal to skepticism. Skeptics refrain from conviction in face of insufficient evidence, while cynics assume bad faith even without sufficient evidence. I am not advocating for naïveté, but for healthy skepticism.

44 comments

  1. [11]
    NaraVara
    (edited )
    Link
    I feel this way a lot, and it seems like it's taken special root on the internet. It's not usually cynicism itself that grinds my gears so much as what I perceive to be "unearned" cynicism. There...

    I feel this way a lot, and it seems like it's taken special root on the internet. It's not usually cynicism itself that grinds my gears so much as what I perceive to be "unearned" cynicism. There is an okay form of cynicism where you've seen a song and dance happen multiple times before and you're tempering your expectations. Or you've directly worked with the people involved and you have reason to doubt their sincerity or commitment.

    But then there's a sort of unearned cynicism where people just reflexively dispense cynical hot takes. They don't necessarily know the people involved, they just assume they're shitty or insincere. Or they haven't worked in that field or done that thing before, they just assume everyone doing it is crooked. This isn't cynicism borne of knowing or understanding anything at a deep level. It's more performative. People with knowledge and experience tend to be cynical because they've seen and these things before. There are other people who see those people, notice that the smart and knowledgable people seem to have some level of cynicism, and try to mimic this behavior to seem smart themselves. I don't want to say it's insincere or purely performative. But it just drives me to think "Oh what the hell do you know?" It feels like listening to a precocious child very dutifully regurgitating their parent's opinions.

    The thing that bugs me about it is that underneath the "earned cynicism" of genuine experts is a sincere idealism. The cynicism is born of frustration. The frustration happens because of their belief that it didn't have to be this way and a better way was possible. They, being experts, probably had some inklings about what that better way could have been. That's why they're cynical. It comes from a place of empathy for why these problems are hard, it comes with a sense of hope that it doesn't have to be this way.

    The "unearned cynicism" undermines all that. These people don't know why it's hard. They have no empathy for the people trying to do the work. They have no real hope or ambition to make any of it better. They're just there to shit on things because they think shitting on things makes them look smarter and more erudite than being excited about them. And that's annoying. All that ends up doing is undermines the work of people trying to invalidate the cynicism. A good cynic wants to be wrong, but a bad cynic relishes the thought of being right.

    17 votes
    1. [5]
      Deimos
      Link Parent
      For me, I think of this more in terms of "dismissiveness" or "contrarianism" than "cynicism". Being cynical about a lot of things is reasonable—I'm certainly cynical about plenty. But, like you, I...

      For me, I think of this more in terms of "dismissiveness" or "contrarianism" than "cynicism". Being cynical about a lot of things is reasonable—I'm certainly cynical about plenty. But, like you, I have a problem with people that just rush to post substance-less dismissals largely because they know it's a reaction that others will support. They aren't even necessarily being dismissive for a particular reason, they just know it's the "right" reaction and they'll get upvotes/likes/retweets or other forms of social acceptance for it. When that happens (and it usually does), it helps condition them and others to do it even more often.

      It's an extremely tiresome aspect of the internet, and I'd really like to try to find some ways to reduce or even eliminate it on Tildes. It makes certain subjects almost impossible to discuss in any kind of good faith (a gaming example: Epic Games Store), because people are more interested in the performative dismissal than the actual content.

      21 votes
      1. mrbig
        Link Parent
        One way to differentiate the two is that dismissiveness can be described as more of a behavior, while cynicism, while usually accompanied by dismissiveness, can also be described as a mental...

        One way to differentiate the two is that dismissiveness can be described as more of a behavior, while cynicism, while usually accompanied by dismissiveness, can also be described as a mental attribute that is able to exist without any external signs.

        Another distinction is that cynicism requires an assumption of bad faith, while dismissiveness alone can be a response to what one perceives as an accidental mistake which requires no moral judgement.

        2 votes
      2. [3]
        viridian
        Link Parent
        Could you explain what you mean by contrarianism in this case? While I don't think I come across as cynical, I do think that I often play the part of the contrarian both online and in real life,...

        Could you explain what you mean by contrarianism in this case? While I don't think I come across as cynical, I do think that I often play the part of the contrarian both online and in real life, because I rarely find that agreeing with someone is a worthwhile form of engagement as opposed to disagreement. I've pretty much never been in an environment, online or offline, where I felt as if I were a part of some large majority group, except back when I was a part of the new atheists movement in the early 2000's, which was itself a counter-movement of sorts to growing mainstream religious hegemony.

        I've never really seen this aspect as good or bad, just different, yet I've obviously noticed that contrarian is typically used as a pejorative, and I'm unclear as to why that is.

        2 votes
        1. [2]
          cfabbro
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          Not who you asked, but I find that online expressions of contrarianism are often incredibly low effort and detrimental to the quality of discussion. E.g. A very common one to see on reddit (and...

          yet I've obviously noticed that contrarian is typically used as a pejorative, and I'm unclear as to why that is.

          Not who you asked, but I find that online expressions of contrarianism are often incredibly low effort and detrimental to the quality of discussion. E.g. A very common one to see on reddit (and even here) is in the comments section of an article about a company or wealthy person doing something philanthropic, the top comment is inevitable someone accusing them of just doing it for the PR, or some other predictable variation thereof.

          And I assume that sort of contrarianism is also what Deimos is referring to given his mentioning of "rush to post substance-less dismissals largely because they know it's a reaction that others will support" and "they just know it's the "right" reaction and they'll get upvotes/likes/retweets or other forms of social acceptance for it".

          4 votes
          1. mrbig
            Link Parent
            Pyrrhonism may be better less disputed term.

            Pyrrhonism may be better less disputed term.

            1 vote
    2. [5]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      Why not call that skepticism instead? I genuinely believe that most people unconsciously adopt cynicism out of good and virtuous intentions towards the greater good and are trying to warn us about...

      There is an okay form of cynicism where you're seen a song and dance happen multiple times before and you're tempering your expectations

      Why not call that skepticism instead?

      I don't want to say it's insincere or purely performative

      I genuinely believe that most people unconsciously adopt cynicism out of good and virtuous intentions towards the greater good and are trying to warn us about the dangers they perceive.

      2 votes
      1. [4]
        NaraVara
        Link Parent
        I guess I think of that as being generally skeptical of all truth claims and holding them to a certain bar for evidence/reasonable assumptions. But many kinds of cynicism aren't skeptical in that...

        Why not call that skepticism instead?

        I guess I think of that as being generally skeptical of all truth claims and holding them to a certain bar for evidence/reasonable assumptions. But many kinds of cynicism aren't skeptical in that way, they're only skeptical of whether a better world is possible, but they're totally uncritical about whatever underpins their knee-jerk cynicism or contrarian claims. It's something sort of like second option bias.

        3 votes
        1. mrbig
          Link Parent
          There are evidently numerous definitions for “skepticism”, I’m using a particular one I cannot define precisely and this is creating all sorts of confusion :P That’s something I must study more....

          There are evidently numerous definitions for “skepticism”, I’m using a particular one I cannot define precisely and this is creating all sorts of confusion :P

          That’s something I must study more.

          It's something sort of like second option bias.

          That’s interesting thank you for showing me that.

          1 vote
        2. [2]
          viridian
          Link Parent
          I think the modern skeptical movement more closely aligns with positivism (and sometimes rationalism) than historical skepticism, which confuses the discussion. The majority of self labelled...

          I think the modern skeptical movement more closely aligns with positivism (and sometimes rationalism) than historical skepticism, which confuses the discussion. The majority of self labelled skeptics are fundamentally positivist, but I think if you asked the same people if criterion of truth existed, you'd get far more mixed answers.

          Do you think it's the case that it's a problem of language evolving?

          1. NaraVara
            Link Parent
            That might be the root of it. The modern skeptic/rationalist movement seems like a reaction to (and maybe overcorrection from) religious fundamentalism. I think the positivism ended up being the...

            I think the modern skeptical movement more closely aligns with positivism (and sometimes rationalism) than historical skepticism

            That might be the root of it. The modern skeptic/rationalist movement seems like a reaction to (and maybe overcorrection from) religious fundamentalism. I think the positivism ended up being the thing because it's the polar opposite of "faith." Hence the obsession with falsifiability and "evidence." I don't think it's a language evolution thing so much as labels/branding being conflated with the real word. Like, we don't have much issue parsing the difference between a Republican and a republican or a Continental from a continental as long as we specify context. So we probably just need to parse Skeptics from skeptics the same way.

            3 votes
  2. [20]
    vord
    Link
    I think the core message is sound, especially the first paragraph. And I don't want the rest of my followups to suggest I'm trying to discredit that. I even agree with most of the second, except...

    I think the core message is sound, especially the first paragraph. And I don't want the rest of my followups to suggest I'm trying to discredit that.

    I even agree with most of the second, except these two:

    Corporations can act for the good of society

    While they can (and do), there's some major problems with taking that at face value. If the primary duty is to the shareholders and not society, then if the two conflict the corporation is legally bound to side with the interests of the shareholders. This leads to nasty outcomes like lowering costs (but not prices!) to the degree that safety is being compromised if the profit from the compromise is more than giving out settlements for lawsuits. Thus, while they do things like take a new lifesaving drug (often developed and tested for viability at a publicly funded research university) and push through the final stages of acceptance...they'll often charge a hefty premium which limits its accessibility and will do everything in their power to make minimal tweaks over time to make it harder to keep the 'current best version' of the same drug expensive and and make the (exponentially) cheaper generics perpetually less desirable. Yea, it's a net good for society, but it's also kind of a crappy way to achieve that good. See also how it's likely that a COVID treatment will be patented and thus very expensive and massively profitable. This all would be less of a problem if every corp was a non-profit, where every cent must be used to improve society and improve the lives of their employees. Which leads into the next issue...

    Billionaires can be virtuous philanthropists.

    Yes, they can and usually are. The whole point is that they shouldn't need to be, as that cumulative money should have already been collected and spent so that philanthropy isn't needed. Schools don't need donations if they're being properly funded through taxation to begin with. We don't need humanitarian aid sending food and medicine if collected taxes are used to help build the infrastructure to help be self sufficient. And, most importantly, all of this philanthropy and stuff could easily be accomplished with fortunes of 'mere' millions of dollars. If a billionaire with only $1 billion, donates $25 million dollars to each of 10 different causes....they still have $750 million remaining. And the amount of wealth accumulation that it takes to get to a Billion means that even if they do that $250 million donation annually, they'll likely still be making that back and then some just due to inertia. There isn't any real reason not to have a hard wealth cap, something like 'All wealth in excess of $50 million dollars is taxed at 100%'. They can then choose to be philanthropists at that level, and re-build their wealth to the cap again after showing that they haven't just played a shell game to hide their wealth.

    And I don't class any of this as skepticism or cynicism. I see this as a failure to address the issues before it got to this point, and that the course must be corrected before making defenses of their actions.

    I agree that positive changes should be celebrated, but they should also immediately followed up with something to the effect of 'This is a good start, let's build on this and not just declare mission accomplished." Because the skeptic/cynic in me has often seen how minor changes are seen as 'good enough' and then the remaining problems ignored for decades until a big enough outrage raises its head.

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      emdash
      Link Parent
      There's a balance to be struck here. I generally argue that the best form of corporations are usually the ones designated Social Purpose Corporations, or are otherwise certified against a...

      This all would be less of a problem if every corp was a non-profit, where every cent must be used to improve society and improve the lives of their employees.

      There's a balance to be struck here. I generally argue that the best form of corporations are usually the ones designated Social Purpose Corporations, or are otherwise certified against a respected standard such as B Corp.

      Profit is a good incentive to encourage people to start businesses; but it shouldn't be at the expense of everything else, nor should the concept of profit be eliminated. At least in my opinion (as a business owner, and also as an anti-hypercapitalist).

      5 votes
      1. vord
        Link Parent
        It is. But I also believe that reasoning is why so many people espouse that it is human nature to be greedy. You end up in a cycle which rewards greediness with substanial comforts and punishes...

        Profit is a good incentive to encourage people to start businesses

        It is. But I also believe that reasoning is why so many people espouse that it is human nature to be greedy. You end up in a cycle which rewards greediness with substanial comforts and punishes selflessness, and then over 100 years later folks like me question capitalism (not the first, just most recent) and get met with 'but it does so much good because it channels our innate greed.'

        Well yea, but that's why we want to dismantle it. If we stopped rewarding greediness, maybe we'd all be a bit nicer and start dismantling the unjust systems quicker.

        I also have huge issues with the whole concept of private capital, as it basically rests on the assumption that individuals deserve to have exclusive control over as much of a limited resource that they can afford (or murder to get in the first place).

        Before capitalism, there used to be a thing called the commons. Capitalists took it by force, declared it theirs, and built their empire on that displacement.

        See also how the richest nation in the world is also the one that got it's start with genocide and slavery...where slavery is still legal to this day and they commit war crimes on their own citizens.

        6 votes
    2. [5]
      mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Suppose there is a road full of holes and almost every week your car breaks down as a consequence. Fortunately, there is an excellent mechanic in the city. He works fast and charges very little....

      Suppose there is a road full of holes and almost every week your car breaks down as a consequence. Fortunately, there is an excellent mechanic in the city. He works fast and charges very little. When you get your car back, you make sure to thank him profusely. You know he’s not responsible for the broken road, but he probably would have much less business if the road was fixed. He’s an honest man running an honest business and you’re glad he exists. Somehow, you understand that your grievances with the shit road you must take every day are not really about him. I mean, he does benefit from the shit road but he’s not responsible for it. So, when he gives back your car, you simply thank him and make sure to give a good tip. By doing so you help support a business that treat people well, unlike other repair shops in your city. Ideally the road should be fixed, but in the meantime there’s nothing wrong with showing appreciation for a temporary fix.

      3 votes
      1. [4]
        vord
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        But those roads could be fixed if all of said repair shops (and others who rely on the roads) are taxed appropriately so that the roads will be fixed. The honest mechanic is still rewarded in...

        But those roads could be fixed if all of said repair shops (and others who rely on the roads) are taxed appropriately so that the roads will be fixed. The honest mechanic is still rewarded in doing so.

        The less scrupulous businesses won't sustain since more of the less frequent repairs will go to the honest mechanic, because people despise unscrupulous businesses, but use them when better options aren't available.

        But also, I think the point is moot. Because the tale of the honest small business, which is a microscopic drop of the total wealth in this (my) country, gets used as a shield to protect the wishes of the massive multi-conglomerates to which everything I said about corporations applies.

        In the end, what would be the downsides of dissolving all businesses and replacing them with non-profit worker co-operatives? All proceeds must go to either: Expanding cooperative operations, paying all of cooperative more, or lowering customer's costs.

        1. [3]
          mrbig
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I don’t think we disagree that much, as long as you agree that humankind is able to do more than one thing at the same time. While we work on the big change, nothing prevents us from encouraging...

          I don’t think we disagree that much, as long as you agree that humankind is able to do more than one thing at the same time.

          While we work on the big change, nothing prevents us from encouraging small virtue.

          Because the tale of the honest small business, which is a microscopic drop of the total wealth in this country, gets used as a shield to protect the wishes of the massive multi-conglomerates to which everything I said about corporations applies.

          I’m sorry I’m not sure which country you’re talking about, but I’ll guess United States? I’m in Brazil and I’m not familiar with that rhetoric. My intention was to demonstrate that localized virtuous behavior should be rewarded, not to shield the government or corporations from criticism.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            vord
            Link Parent
            Ah, yes, sorry, I do tend to presuppose the USA. Beyond the normal bias, I can try to defend myself by saying something about local BBS systems being my first exposure to the net. ;) Seriously...

            Ah, yes, sorry, I do tend to presuppose the USA. Beyond the normal bias, I can try to defend myself by saying something about local BBS systems being my first exposure to the net. ;)

            Seriously though, we are largely on same page yes. But to fill you in on how this works in the USA:

            Massive corporations (or their owners) bribe donate to campaigns and lobby to get their interests pushed. Paid off politicians then do what mega-corps want, and build support by esposing how much the small business owner, the backbone of America, will benefit.... while remaining awfully quiet about all the exponentially larger businesses will benefit more.

            It's not exclusive to small businesses. Tax cuts pass the same way: 'Average families will benefit so much from these changes' translates to 'People with incomes 4x higher get most of the benefit.'

            3 votes
            1. mrbig
              Link Parent
              I believe that’s an abhorrent and harmful rhetoric. If I were familiar with it, I’d certainly have adjusted my allegory in order to avoid misunderstandings.

              I believe that’s an abhorrent and harmful rhetoric. If I were familiar with it, I’d certainly have adjusted my allegory in order to avoid misunderstandings.

              1 vote
    3. [12]
      skybrian
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      You have some misconceptions about the legal restrictions on for-profit corporations. If a company decides to sell a drug at a high profit margin, it's not due to legal restrictions. Their lawyers...

      You have some misconceptions about the legal restrictions on for-profit corporations.

      If a company decides to sell a drug at a high profit margin, it's not due to legal restrictions. Their lawyers aren't telling them that they need to increase the price to avoid legal risk. Instead this happens due to financial incentives and culture. Many employees and CEO's especially are richly rewarded when the stock goes up, and higher profits make it more likely that will happen. Plus they think it's the right thing to do to fulfill their mission, in the same way that a sports team thinks their mission is to win games.

      This isn't inevitable though, it depends on company culture. There are lots of unambitious, local businesses that are in it more for being a "pillar of community" and making a modest profit, and they're not in legal trouble for that. (For a public company, this might leave the company vulnerable to takeover by a corporate raider but not all companies are vulnerable that way.)

      All organizations, though, whether they are for-profit or not, need to keep at least as much money coming in than they spend or they will be in trouble. When there are for-profit and non-profit organizations in the same business (as with hospitals), there often aren't huge differences between them because they have essentially the same business model and are working under similar constraints.

      3 votes
      1. [11]
        vord
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I'm fairly certain I don't. This is true for sole proprietorship, like that local business. However, as soon as you have shareholders, this is untrue, if those shareholders desire more profit and...

        You have some misconceptions about the legal restrictions on for-profit corporations.

        I'm fairly certain I don't.

        This isn't inevitable though, it depends on company culture. There are lots of unambitious, local businesses that are in it more for being a "pillar of community" and making a modest profit, and they're not in legal trouble for that.

        This is true for sole proprietorship, like that local business. However, as soon as you have shareholders, this is untrue, if those shareholders desire more profit and not just the modest one.

        And in the case of a publicly traded company (on the stock market), the shareholders are the people who own stock. And stock prices don't go up if profits remain the same.

        For additional historical background, check this out:
        http://wakeforestlawreview.com/2012/04/our-continuing-struggle-with-the-idea-that-for-profit-corporations-seek-profit/

        2 votes
        1. [10]
          skybrian
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          eBay v. Craigslist is a single case and if you look elsewhere there's a lot more written about it. While I'm by no means an expert, it's easy to find other opinions about what this case means with...

          eBay v. Craigslist is a single case and if you look elsewhere there's a lot more written about it. While I'm by no means an expert, it's easy to find other opinions about what this case means with a Google search. For example:

          It's easy to believe that providing services for free was the long-term way to maximize dollar profits. It got them up to a value of $100 million dollars or so, right? They do not make money charging fees to everybody using their service, but they do make money selling access to certain employers and landlords, at least, and there’s plenty of potential for future profit. An owner interested purely in dollar profit might well act exactly the same way, with the intention of cashing in when the network has reached the right size in, say, ten years, and using its small cash flow from current fees and stock sales to finance maintenance and the owners’ consumption.

          The judge did rule correctly as a bottom line. He said that it was OK for the Craiglist owners to set up a staggered board that would remove Ebay's ability to elect a director. That wasn't necessarily an anti-takeover measure, and minority shareholders have no entitlement to a director anyway. He said that it was NOT okay to do various poison-pillish things that made it hard for Ebay to sell its share, so he rescinded those. The measures weren't to forestall a takeover. A hostile takeover was impossible anyway. Rather, it was either (a) to keep Ebay from selling to some other even more obnoxious minority shareholder (hard to conceive), or (b) to be mean to Ebay by making their shares illiquid so they'd have to sell at a lower price, or to be able to themselves pay that lower price. Obviously, taking a measure to be mean to the minority shareholder is a breach of fiduciary duty. Also, there was no connection between that action and ANY legitimate goal--- not to profit, but not to public service either.

          Thus, it was irrelevant what the Craiglist founders said about maximizing profits. The case wasn't about company policy anyway. It wasn't even about control. It was about keeping Ebay from stealing company secrets and about illegally punishing Ebay for its stealing.

          From: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/law_econ/2014/10/the-craigslist-case-2010-and-permissible-majority-shareholder-corporate-objectives.html

          But it's probably not worth arguing in much depth about this particular case. It's still not the case that we see lawsuits about companies pricing their products too low or too high. (For example, Internet companies give away their services for free without issue.) They also aren't required to jeopardize safety to minimize costs, because companies are allowed to consider the effect on their reputation, not to mention to avoid getting sued. (This all falls under the Business Judgement rule.)

          Your second link, while critical of corporations and pointing out the incentives they sometimes have to take risks, concedes the point about law:

          By so stating, I do not mean to imply that the corporate law requires directors to maximize short-term profits for stockholders. Rather, I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders. The directors, of course, retain substantial discretion, outside the context of a change of control, to decide how best to achieve that goal and the appropriate time frame for delivering those returns.[56]

          I'm not even sure that's right, but in practice it's not a restriction with any teeth. There are all sorts of improbable strategies that you can argue might be profitable someday, and we see all sorts of spectacular failures as startups spend billions pursuing them.

          2 votes
          1. [9]
            vord
            Link Parent
            That restriction is the entire foundation for numerous cases, it's known as fiscuary duty. Perhaps I should have led with this from the second link: So, that sets a pretty clear cut legal ruling...

            I'm not even sure that's right, but in practice it's not a restriction with any teeth. There are all sorts of improbable strategies that you can argue might be profitable someday

            That restriction is the entire foundation for numerous cases, it's known as fiscuary duty.

            Perhaps I should have led with this from the second link:

            An American entrepreneur by the name of Henry Ford tested that proposition and lost some ninety-three years ago in a famous case.[30] In that case, Ford brazenly proclaimed that he was not managing Ford Motor Company to generate the best sustainable return for its stockholders.[31] Rather, he announced that the stockholders should be content with the relatively small dividend they were getting and that Ford Motor Company would focus more on helping its consumers by lowering prices and on bettering the lives of its workers and society at large by raising wages and creating more jobs.

            So, that sets a pretty clear cut legal ruling that profits trump values or duty to society, especially if explicitly stated as such. Sure Ford could have been sly about it, shrouding it as building permanent loyalty or something...but the fact that it is neccesarry to do so means that my original point stands: If any value held impedes maximal profits, it will be dropped when push comes to shove.

            1. [8]
              skybrian
              (edited )
              Link Parent
              Hmm, it seems that Dodge v. Ford is still debated sometimes. Here's an interesting read from two years before eBay v. Newmark that mostly agrees with you, but disputes the significance of it:...

              Hmm, it seems that Dodge v. Ford is still debated sometimes. Here's an interesting read from two years before eBay v. Newmark that mostly agrees with you, but disputes the significance of it:

              Professor Stout’s assertion that Dodge v. Ford is a mere normative description of what corporate law ought to be, rather than a positive account of what corporate law actually is, does not account for the inconvenient fact that the shareholder maximization ideal actually drives the holding and is not mere dicta.

              Still, Professor Stout invokes an extremely important truth: there are no cases other than Dodge v. Ford that actually operationalize the rule that corporations must maximize profits. The goal of profit maximization is to corporate law what observations about the weather are in ordinary conversation. Everybody talks about it, including judges, but with the lone exception of Dodge v. Ford, nobody actually does anything about it.

              [...]

              Shareholder wealth maximization, however, is still at least the law on the books, if not in practice. It is the law, just as it is the law that cars should not drive more than fifty-five miles per hour on Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway. The speed limit is clearly posted and well understood. In reality, however, it is extremely rare to locate a car traveling at less than seventy miles per hour, and eighty miles per hour is closer to the norm. I presume that Professor Stout would agree with me about what the law says with respect to the speed limit on the Merritt Parkway.

              The lack of any apparent means to enforce the de jure speed limit on the Merritt Parkway is largely due to the fact that the terrain makes it extremely difficult to set up speed traps. This, in turn, makes it difficult for the police to detect wrongdoing. The same is true for the rule of corporate law that corporate fiduciaries are obligated to maximize profits for shareholders. The law is clear. It is not merely a “normative discourse,” as Professor Stout argues. The problem is not the lack of clarity of the rule. The problem is lack of enforceability.

              The enforceability problem is exacerbated by hindsight bias. When a company fails (or simply has deeply disappointed shareholders), it will inevitably appear that managers were not acting in the shareholders’ interests, even if they were. In fact, because shareholders are residual claimants who may hold fully diversified portfolios of securities, maximizing profit for shareholders often requires significant risk-taking. Thus, ironically, companies that are engaged in shareholder wealth-maximizing, risk-taking activities may wind up in financial distress. On the other hand, companies that are pursuing strategies that primarily serve the interests of workers, such as expanding only to increase market share or acquiring other companies in unrelated fields to reduce risk, may never become insolvent. However, these strategies often do not maximize value for shareholders.

              [...]

              In other words, what mattered in this case was not what Mr. Ford did, but what he said he was doing. Mr. Ford said that he was putting the interests of other constituents ahead of the interests of the shareholders. If he had lied and said that his motivation was to maximize profits rather than to benefit workers and other non-shareholder constituencies, he would have won the case. The court acknowledges that the problem in this case was Mr. Ford’s frank articulation of the motives for his behavior and that of his directors, as he had attempted to argue that directors’ motives are irrelevant, as long as their actions “are within their lawful powers.”

              Let's see what this means in practice. Companies can pay workers far better than Ford ever did, as tech companies and financial firms do. They can have low prices, or even give away their services for free. They can operate at a loss for many years, burning through billions of dollars. Companies can fund blue-sky research that may never pay off. They can give free lunch to all their employees. They can build enormous, fancy campuses with climbing walls and bowling alleys. Employees can stay in fancy hotels and write off expensive lunches as business expenses. Companies can buy corporate jets for their employees to fly around in. They can decide that from now on they will be carbon-neutral, and never mind the cost. They can even give money to charities whenever they want, as long as it's not too much. They can throw big parties and fly people in from all over the world. They can fly everybody to Disneyland. (I personally experienced this.) And if they don't pay dividends or buy back stock, they can't be sued over it, as long as they didn't promise to do so.

              And sure, fiduciary duty is a thing, but apparently it doesn't prevent any of that.

              Not being a lawyer, I think I should probably avoid getting too deeply into what the law requires. It seems like from observation, though, that the loopholes are so big that pointing to the law as the primary motivator for corporations to pursue profits doesn't work. Why focus on that when there are more important motivators? Many employees are shareholders. They make money when the stock goes up, along with other shareholders.

              But of course managers and other employees are human beings, not machines, so this isn't the only thing they want to do. Corporate politics can be complicated. But it's not hard to justify decisions as being for shareholder benefit, whether they really are or not.

              I don't think values that impede maximal profits will inevitably be dropped, because in practice they aren't. Companies forgo profits all the time, when times are good. They tend not to think hard about what's really necessary and make deep cuts unless times are hard.

              2 votes
              1. [7]
                vord
                (edited )
                Link Parent
                That's not really what's being discussed. The primary motivator for existing at all is to pursue profits, otherwise they'd be a non-profit. It should be perfectly acceptable for a for-profit...

                the law as the primary motivator for corporations to pursue profits doesn't work.

                That's not really what's being discussed. The primary motivator for existing at all is to pursue profits, otherwise they'd be a non-profit. It should be perfectly acceptable for a for-profit company to say to shareholders 'we are intentionally not pursuing additional profits until we stop being profitable.' The law insures that isn't the case.

                Companies forgo profits all the time, when times are good. They tend not to think hard about what's really necessary and make deep cuts unless times are hard.

                As I am a bit of a skeptic/cynic, and can't think of any evidence in the last ~30 years that is an intentional thing, rather than not wanting to risk ruining a good thing, or is a byproduct of beneficial activity not being reported to the top to preserve budgets. Budgets almost always get cut if you don't spend it all, even for non-profits. If a manager chooses to keep on a very unproductive employee purely out of charity or self-interest, they're not likely to report up the chain "we're keeping this person on, but they're easily replaceable if we need to." So there isn't an incentive to report cuts are possible. Once those profits stop flowing in (or are projected to shrink in future), and the deep cuts happen that unproductive employee is the first to go.

                As a first-hand example: My employer has a very stable (rides out almost every downturn) and slowly and continually increasing profit stream. They take 0 risks, so employees are rarely fired, no risky projects are taken. In terms of assets/revenue, is roughly a top 2000 company in the world. When times are good, budgets aren't expanded much outside of incremental raises (on the order of 2% on average) and inflation. When times are average, budgets freeze, so hiring stops and incremental raises only come out of people leaving their positions and not filling them. A revenue drop of 1% in the coming year due to COVID is projected. High percentage of employees are getting a 5% pay cut. They pitch that upper management and executives are voluntarily taking a 10% pay cut, but that isn't resonating as charitable when their income is still over $300,000, while the lower management and employees don't make half that. Huge swaths of people are being furloughed or fired. An indefinite 5% budget cut for our department was instituted (even though costs increased to keep anything going and remote as many as possible). During a Q&A with our entire department and the Finance leads (after the budget cut announcement an subsequent outrage) they made the mistake of showing a total revenue/expenditure for the company and our department budget. When I (and likely others) did quick napkin math, questions escalated. I asked (via our exec who was reading the submissions): 'Why is our department getting cut harder than every other one, when the increasing costs we're incurring are a large reason the shortfall isn't much higher?" While every other answer so far was smooth and anticipated, this one caused them to stutter and stall, eventually fell back to repeating 'we're losing a lot of money so it's important to cut,' which sounds like a non-answer to divert from the actual question.

                But it's not hard to justify decisions as being for shareholder benefit, whether they really are or not.

                If stating "We're going to do X instead of Y because we feel that doing <random thing> is more important than generating profits" explicity results in shareholders having a good legal case against the person saying that, then even if there isn't an explicit law declaring "profits are more important than anything," it is a distinction without a difference.

                The examples you provide for charitable behavior are still mostly out of self-interest:

                • Having low prices and operating at loss is largely a way of building marketshare and squeezing out competition. That's how Uber/Lyft function. That's how Walmart crushed huge swaths of small businesses. Amazon does this all the time now that they have more money than god. If they see a market they want to dominate, or see a competitor rising that threatens their dominance, they'll drop prices to unsustainable levels for as long as necessary to bankrupt competition then jack up prices even higher.
                • Blue-sky research isn't charitable unless all results are released to the public domain. If it isn't, it means it was a high risk/high reward gamble.
                • High pay and nice perks are good ways of attracting top-tier skilled talent. Those perks often dry up real quick once they aren't needed. Hell, I'm hearing a lot about companies that won't even provide free coffee, one of the cheapest possible perks. I've never in my life heard a tale of "I asked to borrow the corporate jet for my vacation and they let me use it for free!," although I have heard related generous things that happen rarely and result in massive free press.
                • Free services means the user is the product and not the customer (Google/Facebook/etc).
                • Carbon neutrality is a marketing gimmick that is easy to fudge without actually doing anything substantial to reform processes to reduce emissions, which is far more important. Perpetually increasing carbon taxes based on emissions is likely the only way to resolve that.
                • Charity money donated is almost always a tiny fraction of the amount of money they spend on marketing that they've donated to charity. If you feel the need to announce you've donated X amount to a charity at all, it's not charity, it's PR/marketing, esp if you've paid to do so. Promotions like 'Buy our product and we'll donate a portion to charity (limit $10 million)' isn't charity, or they would just give $10 million to charity and not use sales as a metric for the amount. See also: BLM solidarity messages from company social media accounts that evaporate less than a week after protests slow down .
                1 vote
                1. [6]
                  skybrian
                  Link Parent
                  I didn't claim they were charity. But more importantly, self-interest and shareholder profit are two different things. They might align, or they might be opposites. It's quite easy for people to...

                  The examples you provide for charitable behavior are still mostly out of self-interest

                  I didn't claim they were charity. But more importantly, self-interest and shareholder profit are two different things. They might align, or they might be opposites. It's quite easy for people to enrich themselves, or at least live very comfortably, at the expense of shareholders.

                  not wanting to risk ruining a good thing, or is a byproduct of beneficial activity not being reported to the top to preserve budgets

                  Preserving budgets means expenses are higher than they need to be. That's self-interest working against shareholder interest.

                  Or is it? HR decisions are fuzzy and how does anyone ever know whether an expense will pay for itself? It's easy to justify expenses and also easy to cheat. Keeping valued employees happy is important, but how much is too much?

                  If you can't evaluate the function, how do you maximize it?

                  All of the examples I've given can easily be justified as possibly maximizing profits, as you've shown. But so can their opposites. If you can justify both an action and its opposite then "maximize shareholder profits" isn't a useful constraint on your decision.

                  If stating "We're going to do X instead of Y because we feel that doing <random thing> is more important than generating profits" explicity results in shareholders having a good legal case against the person saying that, then even if there isn't an explicit law declaring "profits are more important than anything," it is a distinction without a difference.

                  This seems to be a constraint on what you say, not what you do?

                  1 vote
                  1. [5]
                    vord
                    Link Parent
                    As my closing argument, I'll circle back to my original point about this: That bolded part is the important one. If every action the company takes (as seen as the top making decisons based on...

                    This seems to be a constraint on what you say, not what you do?

                    As my closing argument, I'll circle back to my original point about this:

                    If the primary duty is to the shareholders and not society, then if the two conflict the corporation is legally bound to side with the interests of the shareholders

                    That bolded part is the important one. If every action the company takes (as seen as the top making decisons based on information they have) must be pitched or justified to the shareholders as how it's benefiting them personally, with legal frameworks defending the shareholders, then that means my original statement is in line with my interpretation of the law.

                    Feel free to leave your own closing statement, but I think I've hit a natural conclusion so I'm disengaging to move on.

                    As an aside, I quite enjoyed our exchange, as I found it thought provoking, and made me dig a bit deeper in researching and considering the stances I take. That research doesn't always come across. Without these exchanges, I don't always dig any deeper to evaluate the why. I know that sometimes results in biased research, but I do make honest efforts to insure I'm using reasonably academic sources and not basing my thoughts on /r/ChappoTrapHouse memes.

                    2 votes
                    1. [4]
                      skybrian
                      Link Parent
                      Looking back at your original statement, the part I object to more is the example you gave: While cost-cutting to improve profits is common and accepted, making this explicit trade-off between...

                      Looking back at your original statement, the part I object to more is the example you gave:

                      This leads to nasty outcomes like lowering costs (but not prices!) to the degree that safety is being compromised if the profit from the compromise is more than giving out settlements for lawsuits.

                      While cost-cutting to improve profits is common and accepted, making this explicit trade-off between profits and lawsuits over consumers being harmed is far from universal, in particular because the costs from lawsuits aren't predictable. Most companies will at least say that they put safety first, and some actually do. Spending too much on safety doesn't seem like a legal risk for those companies that do it? Has a shareholder lawsuit ever happened due to a company spending too much on safety?

                      So, drawing a casual connection between shareholder maximization and specific bad behavior doesn't seem so easy. Bad things happening tends to cause, not prevent, shareholder lawsuits when the scandal becomes public and the stock drops.

                      Anyway, I'll leave it there. Glad you enjoyed it!

                      1 vote
                      1. [3]
                        vord
                        Link Parent
                        Dammit, I had to come back for that example...it wasn't a hypothetical example. This is my story. I won't debate anything else, just tell that story. GM covers up faulty ignition switch for a...

                        Dammit, I had to come back for that example...it wasn't a hypothetical example. This is my story. I won't debate anything else, just tell that story.

                        GM covers up faulty ignition switch for a decade(while continuing to make cars with faulty switch), 30+ million cars recalled worldwide starting in 2014. Cost of replacement part that didn't have defect? Less than a dollar.

                        I had a Saturn affected by this, made more than 5 years after they became aware. It shutoff on me while I was headed down an onramp around 2011ish, and I nearly died, 3 years before announcement. If it had happened 5 seconds later I would likely have been smashed by a semi. I had previously thought it was user error, but when I found out...I was pissed.

                        So I do harbor a deep resentment for that. GM did math and decided decided my life (and anybody else who bout these cars) was worth less than a dollar added cost to every car. Fuck any company that finds a serious defect, covers it up and continues to make it despite knowing more people will die.

                        I'm not telling to garner sympathy or anything like that...but I think it's important to know for anybody following along.

                        2 votes
                        1. [2]
                          skybrian
                          Link Parent
                          Yeah, I'm not going to defend GM. Just saying: this reprehensible behavior wasn't legally required. They did illegal things and got caught. There is a saying that culture eats strategy for...

                          Yeah, I'm not going to defend GM. Just saying: this reprehensible behavior wasn't legally required. They did illegal things and got caught.

                          There is a saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I think it goes further than that. The wrong culture will result in organization doing things that are dangerous, foolish, expensive, and illegal. A culture of putting profits first over other goals is often self-defeating.

                          2 votes
                          1. vord
                            Link Parent
                            I like that saying. I'd probably be far less cynical if I saw it put in practice more often these days.

                            I like that saying. I'd probably be far less cynical if I saw it put in practice more often these days.

                            1 vote
  3. [4]
    imperialismus
    Link
    Your analysis of internet forums is ironically quite cynical. It’s very broad, without any concrete motivating examples, and assumes bad faith on the part of the people you’re painting with so...

    Your analysis of internet forums is ironically quite cynical. It’s very broad, without any concrete motivating examples, and assumes bad faith on the part of the people you’re painting with so broad a brush.

    I personally feel like cynicism or pessimism are more like acquired personality traits than carefully considered philosophical positions. I recognize in myself a tendency to look for the downsides before the upsides. I don’t feel personally attacked by your statement, because I don’t think my knee-jerk reaction to anything is to assume the worst possible scenario without considering evidence. However, I think it would be more helpful to approach the issue from a place of empathy.

    Why is it that pessimistic voices stand out on internet forums? In my experience, and this is far from universal, but speaking very broadly, a lot of the leading voices on internet forums are people who feel somewhat on the outside of society. A little depressed, a little lonely. People who lead full lives outside the internet often (not always) simply don’t have the time or inclination to become regulars on internet forums. If you go into things with those experiences in your luggage, it becomes very difficult to maintain a cheery optimism.

    That said, I feel like it’s very hard to discuss these things in the abstract. I have certainly seen examples of the behavior you describe, but my impression is that the knee-jerk pessimism is far less common than you claim. Once we get into any concrete issue, we can look at concrete arguments and evidence. You might find that the pessimistic response is based on a more considered take on the evidence than you think. But again, it’s very difficult to assess without reference to any concrete issue.

    Have you ever seen the satire show Silicon Valley? If you haven’t, it has a parodically cynical character called Gilfoyle, the kind of type who listens to black metal while hacking hardware to display ‘fuck the man’ in obnoxiously large letters. This character was the first thing to spring to mind when I read your rant. I would expect there to be a lot of Gilfoyle types on internet forums, especially the more technically minded ones. And yet, for instance, when I visit r/programming and see a discussion of Microsoft’s recent embracing of Linux, I see a roughly even split between cautious optimism and outright cynicism. I might even give the edge to the optimists. But if you go looking for Gilfoyles, you will surely find them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And is, ironically, quite a cynical approach to take.

    5 votes
    1. [3]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      That’s odd because I feel I did not make any assumptions whatsoever regarding the motivations for cynicism, merely described it. By doing so I believe I avoided this specific contradiction. And...

      Your analysis of internet forums is ironically quite cynical. It’s very broad, without any concrete motivating examples, and assumes bad faith on the part of the people you’re painting with so broad a brush.

      That’s odd because I feel I did not make any assumptions whatsoever regarding the motivations for cynicism, merely described it. By doing so I believe I avoided this specific contradiction. And the reason I did not provide examples was to avoid unnecessary aggravation from those that I consider to write cynical comments.

      You might accuse me of making a weak argument, I can see that, but I don’t think the thread itself is an example of cynicism.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        imperialismus
        Link Parent
        How to put this? You see negativity around, and you make the assumption that it’s unjustified. That it is, in your words, indiscriminate, a reaction that has not taken into account the evidence. I...

        How to put this? You see negativity around, and you make the assumption that it’s unjustified. That it is, in your words, indiscriminate, a reaction that has not taken into account the evidence. I think that if you go looking for that, you will find it, but if you prod and poke a bit I think you will find that a lot of it is more considered than you think. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily right, but at least, that it’s more carefully thought through than simply a knee-jerk reaction.

        If you go in like an alien sociologist, uninterested in the reasons why people feel the way they do, their feelings will always seem hollow. If you do not make an effort to understand, it’s unlikely that you will. Again, it’s very hard to argue against an extremely broad and vague claim like this. Maybe you had in mind a hundred concrete examples that perfectly illustrate your theory, but you wanted to keep it general so we can’t talk about that! That’s why I feel like whatever I say, it will involve hand-waving. But if I have to hand-wave, I will wave in the direction of I think you would find the situation less dire if you went into it with the desire to understand before you judge.

        3 votes
        1. mrbig
          Link Parent
          It seems to me that you’re being very successful in doing so. Maybe you’re taking my statements too seriously. I originally posted this on ~misc and @deimos move it to ~talk, rightfully so. This...

          it’s very hard to argue against an extremely broad and vague claim like this

          It seems to me that you’re being very successful in doing so.

          Maybe you’re taking my statements too seriously. I originally posted this on ~misc and @deimos move it to ~talk, rightfully so. This is the casual corner of Tildes. While I love logic and reasoning, I did not think it was necessary to be very precise for this thread, but I did provide some definitions so the reader can know what I’m talking about.

          you wanted to keep it general so we can’t talk about that

          I’m not sure how you could arrive at this conclusion from the things I wrote. I assure you that I love talking with all kinds of people on Tildes, frequently in excess. Besides, if that was my intention I failed miserably, since I got numerous responses, including from people that disagree with me. Yours is just one example.

          1 vote
  4. mftrhu
    Link
    Allow me to cast (X) Doubt briefly, but as vord already covered it I won't say more. Positive changes, though, should be rewarded appropriately. A corporation adding a rainbow to its logo in June...

    corporations can act for the good of society, billionaires can be virtuous philanthropists

    Allow me to cast (X) Doubt briefly, but as vord already covered it I won't say more.

    We should be absolutely skeptical of sudden changes of attitude, but indiscriminate cynicism creates an environment that does not reward positive changes,

    Positive changes, though, should be rewarded appropriately. A corporation adding a rainbow to its logo in June does not deserve to be heaped with praise. A billionaire who donates even a few percents of their net wealth, likewise.

    assholes can learn to be nice, and bigots can learn to respect diversity

    And, if anything, I have issue with the opposite: people, in my experience, are not cynical enough.

    From time to time, someone will post on one of the LGBT+ subreddits, making a thread about how they stopped being homo/trans-phobic, maybe wanting to reach out to those they bullied, and the amount of praise they receive inevitably makes me uncomfortable.

    People do not deserve praise for not being evil. That's the least we can expect from them. They don't deserve praise because they claimed to have understood what they did wrong, they need to earn it through concrete actions.

    Too often, when these people are criticized for what they admitted they did, they pull the fair-weather ally card: "if this is how I'm going to be treated, then maybe I was wrong", and I think the community gains very little from embracing them. When they persevere on being hurtful, when they expect to be taught instead of learning, they actually cause damage.

    "Don't assume virtue, don't assume bad faith" would be all well and good, if not for the fact that bad faith is in the playbook of too many groups to enumerate. There are enough people who do this deliberately - who try to sow division by playing the part of the bumbling fool, for ideology or for a laugh - that any cynicism is more than earned in many, many, many communities.

    2 votes
  5. [8]
    Kuromantis
    Link
    I agree, but I don't see what am I supposed to take away from this. Just because things can get better doesn't mean they will or that it won't only come after a lot of struggle or a long time.

    I agree, but I don't see what am I supposed to take away from this. Just because things can get better doesn't mean they will or that it won't only come after a lot of struggle or a long time.

    1 vote
    1. [7]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      Don’t assume virtue, don’t assume bad faith. Evaluate from the information you have, and seek more information if you feel that’s insufficient. That’s about it, in my view.

      Don’t assume virtue, don’t assume bad faith. Evaluate from the information you have, and seek more information if you feel that’s insufficient. That’s about it, in my view.

      2 votes
      1. [6]
        Kuromantis
        Link Parent
        Oh, ok, although that just seems like another variation of 'don't rush to conclusions damnit'.

        Oh, ok, although that just seems like another variation of 'don't rush to conclusions damnit'.

        1. [5]
          mrbig
          Link Parent
          That’s because it is!

          That’s because it is!

          1 vote
          1. [4]
            Kuromantis
            Link Parent
            In that case I don't really see how this would affect too much other than a few dozen million people being moderately less pessimistic and Internet discussion moderately better?

            In that case I don't really see how this would affect too much other than a few dozen million people being moderately less pessimistic and Internet discussion moderately better?

            1 vote
            1. [3]
              mrbig
              Link Parent
              This doesn’t seem so inconsequential to me, especially because: The internet is a big deal People transfer internet behavior and vocabulary to the “real world” all the time

              This doesn’t seem so inconsequential to me, especially because:

              1. The internet is a big deal
              2. People transfer internet behavior and vocabulary to the “real world” all the time
              2 votes
              1. [2]
                Kuromantis
                Link Parent
                Ok, sure. I just feel the problem is that if a bunch of people decided bigots can be changed and went into white supremacist sites and talk to the local Republicans in their neighborhood they...

                Ok, sure. I just feel the problem is that if a bunch of people decided bigots can be changed and went into white supremacist sites and talk to the local Republicans in their neighborhood they would likely realize all the media they consume is geared towards legitimizing that feeling and that they would need to go much beyond the bigots to stop bigotry.

                1. mrbig
                  (edited )
                  Link Parent
                  That’s not at all what I’m proposing. I made an effort to make that abundantly clear. This is not about going out hugging Nazis. The idea is to replace an indiscriminate assumption of bad faith...

                  That’s not at all what I’m proposing. I made an effort to make that abundantly clear. This is not about going out hugging Nazis. The idea is to replace an indiscriminate assumption of bad faith with a more adaptable, flexible, and complete set of assumptions that take into account the possibility of change. That’s what I call skepticism.

                  1 vote