This is going to be another ethical post. I will explore the role that niceness can or could have in acting morally. The goal will be to answer the title question, and if it is not enough can it at least play a central role, and what else might be required. I think of niceness as a virtue, so I will have some discussion on virtue ethics of the Aristotelian kind. And, I will also have something to say on moral subjectivism. And, it is likely that I will discuss other ethical issues as well.
Well, what exactly do I mean by “niceness.” Using dictionary.com’s definition of nice, niceness would be the quality of being “pleasing, agreeable, delightful” and “amiably pleasant” and on the action side of things, being “kind.” Some of the entries for the Oxford English Dictionary are not so flattering, but another online dictionary – thefreedictionary.com – is pretty much in agreement with dictionary.com.
These are some dictionary entries. But, what does being nice mean to me? The first I would say is that niceness has a great deal to do with respect. Being respectful of others seems to me to be the core of niceness. However, being respectful does not always need to include being nice. But, most often I feel that if you are nice to someone you are respecting that person. And, if I think of the respect due to others I usually want to be nice to them.
Being nice is also about being friendly. Greet someone with a smile. I admit this can be difficult to do when you come upon, like on my walks, someone who is scowling. But, if I can make eye contact and smile, I do sometimes get a smile back. Being friendly is also about being helpful and being kind (see below). Another quality of being friendly is being amicable; this is (by dictionary.com) showing goodwill. Friendly people are usually agreeable and not contentious. Synonyms (by dictionary.com) for friendly are: neighborly (like giving out holiday cookies), cordial, genial, and well-dispose.
Part of being nice is giving pleasing compliments and kind remarks. Just saying “hello” can brighten someone’s day. Saying “you look nice” to someone, especially when they are wearing something new is a mood lifter for her or him. Of course, compliments need to be sincere, or there is a danger that it will not be well received. Wishing someone “a good day” is also a fine thing to say. And then, there is my signature salutation – “take care,” which I feel is a warm way of saying goodbye.
Compliments and such remind me of politeness. When I was not polite my mother would often tell me to use the two magic words – “please” and “thank you.” It is also connected with respect. By saying “please” we indicate that we will be thankful if that person grants our request, as long as they do not request the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick. And, saying “thank you” seals the deal. But, they are also the nice or kind thing to do—people tend to appreciate it when they are said. I have a pet peeve when it comes to using “please.” It is often attached to a command: “Please, pass the salt.” The statement as a whole is still an imperative even with the addition of “please.” This is of course is not a good reason not to use it, however.
Another thing that is a mark of being a nice person is having a good sense of humor. I myself do a fairly good job at getting other people to laugh. This behavior can backfire at times, but for the most part people will laugh at my witty remarks, or at least not be offended. I guess I have the ability to make light of a situation—brighten the mood. I suppose that this is where my humor can go astray the most.
Niceness is also about being kind, so let me talk about it. Kindness is the key outward manifestation of niceness. Being kind is also being helpful. It is saying the right thing. When you practice kindness you naturally look for helpful things you can do for others. It is almost like you have a radar for where you can act in kindness. Most people have heard of random acts of kindness; I am not enamored with this phrase. All acts (whether kind ones or not) are determined events, so randomness does not enter into it. Plus, even in the natural act where you do something for someone in an almost effortless way without much of a conscious decision, you have not just acted willy-nilly.
So, this is my take on what being nice and it’s roommate being kind is about (short though it be). How does it fit in with ethics?
The first thing I would like to do is introduce Aristotle’s virtue ethics.* While I do not see his virtue ethics as the be all or end all of the field, I believe it makes an important contribution. The basic theme to Aristotle’s ethics is that one should practice being virtuous. For him these were things like courage and benevolence. He also believed that intellectual virtues were important too (as I do, but this is for another time). By practicing virtuous behavior he thought that one would act more moral as time went on. He also thought, that one was basically born with the tendency to be virtuous.¹
Another component to his virtue ethics was that each virtue lay at the middle of a continuum between two extremes. For instance, courage falls between acting cowardly and being foolhardy. I feel niceness falls between being mean and being walked all over. I think the purpose of placing virtues on a continuum is that it gives one a clear mark to aim at. If you are shying away from the mean (middle point of the continuum), you can see if you are leaning toward one of the extremes. It can teach one to be on guard and correct one’s behavior when needed.
So now what? I have made niceness a virtue—a central one. I know where it falls on a continuum. Is this going to be sufficient to lead a moral life, or even to keep my mind focused on being nice? I do not think it makes any ethical theory complete. For one, I do not think that ethics can ever be a closed book. For another, ethics seems to encompasses much more than just bring nice.
What more is necessary then? Some basic considerations, some type of moral compass. There are two which are attractive to me—one negative, one positive. The negative one is to act as to avoid or prevent harm. The positive is to act as to enhance the flourishing of life of conscious beings. For a very good exposition on using the harm concept in ethics see Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality
without god. For the use of the flourishing concept and the need for scientific research to determine what contributes to this form of life a good book would be Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.
While these concepts are certainly useful, it is well to remember that these are human devised concepts of what is important in deciding what behavior is ethical. In other words, while it may be objective to determine what causes harm or contributes to a flourishing life, deciding to use either one of them is a subjective matter. I would go a little further and say that they have a good deal of intersubjectivity (agreement among individuals’ subjective views) to them because most people would consider using these concepts as valid indicators of whether or an act is moral or not.
So, where does niceness fit in? Can it act as a stand-in for the harm and/or flourishing concepts? I think it can work (at times), and work in conjunction with both concepts. If you act nicely, you are less likely to cause harm to others, and maybe even be able to prevent harm in some cases. Again with the flourishing concept if you act in a nice manner, I think it is more likely that you will be contributing to some other conscious being’s flourishing. This works even for nonhuman species. I am almost always nice to Baxter, and I believe (I might be prejudice) that he is a happy cat. The only exceptions to my treatment of Baxter is when his behavior is out of bounds. Then, he will get a squirt of water (by suggestion by his veterinarian), but he is quickly forgiven. Remember the niceness continuum, letting Baxter behave badly without consequences would be allowing him to walk all over me and Bette. I know Baxter is only a cat, but I think that people that are kind to animals are also kind to human beings for the most part.
What about other ethical theories. The three concepts I have talked about are harm, flourishing, and niceness. These are utilitarian principles; they rely on the consequences of actions. There are rule based utilitarian theories, but I feel that ethics is basically about the consequences of an act with some consideration being given to intentions (a possible future blog post). But, there are other ethical theories, such as deontological (Kant’s categorical imperative is one), natural law and natural right, and divine command. The problem with these ethical theories are that they are too rigid; there are no grays in them. Ethics can make things cloudy in some circumstances, and since this is so, it best not to be to rigid in coming up with ethical theories.
Then, of course, there is virtue ethics a la Aristotle (already briefly summarized). I do not see this approach as standing alone. While I see it being able to contribute to someone’s moral behavior, it needs to be supplemented as with the harm or flourishing concepts. It also needs to be kept in mind that morals are subjective.^ Who determines what virtues to practice? I feel different people value different virtues; although, like above there is much agreement here (intersubjectivity).
There is also the consideration of what determines whether a particular virtue has been performed or not; like, who determines what is nice or not (naughty or nice)? Santa Claus. While moral subjectivism is still a consideration here, our moral feelings fill-in a lot of what is considered to be nice or not. Empathy maybe the most important one. When we feel for another we tend to want to help (a part of niceness). Whether or not we do in fact help depends on more factors than just feeling empathy, but I will not delve into these now. Some feelings connected with empathy are compassion, warmth, concord, and rapport. There are also negative moral feelings like guilt, shame, and embarrassment. When we act mean we often feel (unless you are a psychopath) these negative feelings.
But, being nice is also its own reward. It feels good to be nice and to act kindly. I believe this feeling good (call it moral satisfaction), as with David Hume, is a prime motivator for acting morally, especially acting nicely. Hume’s main work on ethics is An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and in it he supports moral subjectivism. In his formulation of it he included the statement that you cannot derive “ought” from “is.” In other words no matter what exists in the world there is no way of determining what moral course to take. If this is indeed Hume’s view, it is not quite correct in my opinion. We can learn a lot about what affects what, and one of these is the observation that being nice to someone boosts that person’s mood, which I would say increases that person’s flourishing.
Another reason why niceness is subjective is its place on a continuum. As a virtue I place it as the mean between being nasty and letting people take advantage of you. But, there is a logical paradox involving continuums. It is called the “sorites paradox.” Take baldness for instance. Baldness lies between having a full head of hair and none at all. If you were to take one hair at a time from someone’s head at what point does this person become bald? It is hard to judge where the line is crossed. Color continuums can exhibit the same paradox. Purple lies between blue and red on a continuum. Going from blue to red changing the color ever so slowly you would eventually arrive at purple. But, at what point? This paradox again points out to me the need to deal with grays because things are not always (maybe rarely) so black and white. How far do I have to go from niceness to being walked on at all times for these actions of mine to be no longer considered nice? And, on the reverse side how much do I need to subtract from the peak of niceness to be considered mean? Well, there is a change from one to the other, but where the change might take place can be subjective.
Giving compliments is an act of niceness, but take flattery. Flattery can be said to be overblown complimenting. “Oh, that dress looks so wonderful on you. And, your makeup is so exquisite.” When used to manipulate others it is considered brown-nosing. No matter what your motive, where is the line crossed from sincere compliment to flattery. But, here is the brillency of placing things on a continuum. If we aim for the middle and do not stray to far from it we will, more times than not, hit are mark. In the case of niceness we will be or act nice.
As an aside to the sorites paradox, and before I sum things up, I will give a somewhat fuller exploration of it. There a number of ways that logicians attempt to solve this paradox. One is to use some sort of consensus. Where would the majority of people judge where the change has taken place as you move along the continuum, say as a percentage of people (not the continuum itself). This approach seems rather feeble. It just removes the issue to the subjective impressions of individuals. Where would you draw the line? Hence, it will do nothing to help one decide where a change would take place. It is only after the fact of many individuals giving their judgement that a firmer conclusion can be exhibited. But, how effective is this really? Another way used is taking a many-valued logic approach. In other words have a selection of choices. You could consider partitioning the continuum into, say seven blocks. With this type of analysis maybe the three middle blocks would be considered the thing in question to one degree or the other. But, where do you place the partitions? Again, subjectivity will come into play. Finally, there is fuzzy logic, which attempts to analyze the continuum in percentages. This maybe the best approach. Is it perfect? Probably not. Subjectivity would still be found in the assigning of the percentages. It must be remembered that there is no way to eliminate subjectivity when it comes to ethics; it is just one of the things we have to accept.
I would suggest that all this bother about the sorites paradox is not needed. If we learn to accept the grays between the blacks and the whites, we may become more comfortable when things are not so clear. Why not just say there is no clear logic involved in determining what is what when it lies on a continuum? People want things to be certain. But, can we ever truly obtain this? Part of living is acceptance. There are just things which cannot be changed (this includes moral subjectivism). So while the sorites paradox may give fits to a logician, when approaching real life we use those things called feelings, which are not only subjective, but privately so. There is still a lot of agreement between the feelings of different people in regards to the same situation. The same things often cause fear, disgust, or surprise for instance in a majority of people. Fear of snakes would be one example of this. We are fortunate that evolution has given us the similarities we share with others. This makes moral subjectivism workable. Without our similarities disagreements would reign supreme.
Okay, where am I in all this niceness? First, niceness as a virtue to aim for does not cover all we could utilize in the search for good moral behavior. For instance what are we trying to accomplish by being nice. Here we can use the harm and flourishing concepts. This is mainly because nice behavior avoids or prevents harm most of the time, and it also usually contributes to another’s flourishing life. And, no matter how nice you may be, there are some moral acts that disregard niceness. Sometimes “the truth hurts.” Honesty† can trump niceness because often the lack of honesty can cause more harm than good, or prevent a life from flourishing more fully. Say a friend comes to you with a dilemma of having two girlfriends and does not want to give up either one. The honest thing to do is admonish your friend that it is wrong to be in two committed relationships. You point out the harm that can come of it for the two girlfriends if this situation continues to exist. Of course, you do not want to come across as nasty, but neither do you want to be so nice, that your friend will not take you seriously.
Given all that I have said here, I feel that niceness is an admirable virtue to practice in our relations to others. Being nice and acting kindly rarely go wrong if they are sincere. I am much more comfortable with myself when I am nice towards others, than when I am not. And, remember the trite phrase – “practice makes perfect,” where a good deal of truth resides, even if it is trite. So, being nice will not turn one into a perfectly moral person, but it certainly seems to be a good and important component to help one act morally.
To end, I will hope that you have a nice day. And, tell you to “take care.”
¹ At least this is the view of Carnes Lord’s in his chapter on Aristotle in History of Political Philosophy, Third Edition, 1987, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. However, I do not recall reading this in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
* See What Did Aristotle Mean? for more on virtue ethics and other ethical considerations.
^ See What is Moral Subjectivism About? for more on my views on this aspect of ethics.
† Honesty (a possible a future blog post here) is more than whether or not you tell a lie. Lies can often have benefits, both small and large. Honesty or dishonesty is more about whether or not you consciously intending to deceive someone. I can be telling you the truth, yet use that truth to manipulate you. Dishonesty rarely does not involve negative consequences.