Sometimes Nice is Good

I have friends who hate the word nice. People shouldn’t want to be nice, according to this view, but rather to be good! I don’t quite agree.

What I care about is not whether a person is acting nicely, but why.

Is the niceness a sign of weakness, of insecurity? Is it motivated by fear and by a desire to be liked? I wouldn’t call this sort of niceness evil, necessarily; it is understandable and in many situations may be the wise course. Still, it’s clearly not optimal. It’s not heroic virtue, even if it might not be wrong.

But what if the person who’s being nice is someone who’s strong and smart and capable? What about when the niceness is revealing a powerful person’s self-control, the ability to hold back one’s aggression even when it might be easier and more satisfying to unleash it?

Now, that person has attained a marvellous kind of virtue indeed.

Niceness can derive from weakness or from strength. In the former case it looks like obsequiousness, but in the latter it is a coiled spring, a contained ferocity.

If we praise niceness, let it be the second sort. I think it was Harvey Mansfield who said that you have to be a man before you can be a gentleman, which captures something of the spirit of what I’m trying to say.

I know some people will say that niceness originally referred to silliness or lack of intelligence, but let’s not get too lost in the etymological fallacy. I mean niceness in the way it is normally used today (when not pejorative), as a kind of intersection of gentleness and kindness and peaceableness and generosity and encouragement. That kind of niceness can certainly be a praiseworthy quality.

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