Articles & Essays

On Niceness as an (A)moral Value – Irina Symons

People tend to evaluate the world and events in the world according to three major domains of value:  epistemic value (truth, falsity), ethical value (right and wrong, good and bad, praiseworthy and blameworthy), and aesthetic values (beautiful, ugly, pretty, cute, nice, etc.) One’s appreciation of the values of truthfulness and rightness develops relatively late in one’s maturation in comparison to the appreciation of the values of beauty and ugliness. Children learn pretty quickly to categorize pleasant experiences as good, and unpleasant experiences as bad. Just as easily, children will identify what they find beautiful as desirable, and the ugly as undesirable. It is probably close to a universal fact that in the early stages of education, children are corrected by being told that “it is not nice” to do a certain thing, or in certain languages even that certain behaviors and attitudes “are not beautiful”. Even a two-year old will respond to this kind of criticism, while common sense tells us that it would be close to absurd to try to explain to a two year old why certain actions are not right.

Pleasant and unpleasant experiences are the primary means that young children have for deciding what is valuable. For our first attributions of value the only measure we have is our sensory experience of the world. Up until a certain age, it is hard to understand why one should choose to be truthful, when that path does not make one feel good. Not even for a mature intellect is it always easy to resist the appealing choice and go with the unappealing one in the name of what is true, or right. However, as human beings we do have the capacity to recognize value disinterested, and even against one’s own interests.

Maybe due to the fact that our first valuing is associated with sensorial experiences, many times our day to day moral and aesthetic evaluations get confused. If we pay attention, we’ll catch ourselves giving moral praise to aesthetic accomplishments, or will categorize what we find aesthetically unappealing as a moral failure. As far as I can tell, in many languages “beautiful”, “nice”, or an equivalent, are used to denote moral evaluation of actions, but not for the moral evaluation of persons. By contrast, in English, “nice” is not only used to describe someone’s looks, but also how they are as a person. According to Urban Dictionary, to describe someone as nice is to say that they are kind, or caring, or even that they do “things for other people without benefit to themselves.”[1] I am not taking the Urban Dictionary to be an authority in ethical scholarship. However, to the best of my knowledge, “nice” is not a moral value accounted for by moral philosophers. However, I argue that how we use this notion in our day to day evaluation of others and of ourselves, is relevant for understanding the kind of non-reflective moral evaluation that most of us engage in habitually.

I also find it worth mentioning that, to say that someone lived a “beautiful” life does indicate the moral component of that life. It seems to me that to describe someone’s life as beautiful is to emphasize one’s relationships with others, rather than how the person themselves felt throughout their life. On the other hand, to say that someone had a “nice” life, is to emphasize the felt quality of that life, for example the comfort and good time the person had. Beautiful in the phrase “a beautiful life” is likely to be synonymous with altruistic, generous, wise, virtuous, and harmonious, without excluding that the life was also pleasant, comfortable, and full of fun experiences. Nice in the phrase “a nice life” is used as synonymous to pleasant, comfortable, and full of fun experiences, without excluding that the person has also been generous, virtuous, harmonious, etc. What I want to emphasize is that if we pay attention to how we use these words, we notice that “beautiful”, in a moral context, describes a person’s character traits. “Nice”, when used to describe the unity of a life, firstly, does not carry moral connotations, and secondly, it describes the kind of experiences that fill a life, the felt quality of a life, and not a person’s character traits.  We do describe people as having “beautiful souls”, which indicates moral accomplishment, but we don’t describe people as having “nice souls.” If it were used, “nice soul” would most likely indicate a moral shortcoming.

However, I would argue that on a day to day basis, the praise of niceness passes for a moral evaluation of a moral accomplishment. One can notice that, at least in the United States, or on social media in the circles that I have access to, people are described or expected to be nice, more than they are described or expected to be good. Niceness describes the style of a person’s actions, rather than the inner motivation or goal of their actions. To describe someone as nice is to describe the appearance of their behavior. Nice, together with its closest synonyms: agreeable, or enjoyable, evaluate pleasant experiences. That is, someone will be described as nice when I find their attitude or behavior pleasant.

For the person who is motivated to do the right thing, for the parent who is motivated to steer their child towards what is good for them, for the friend who believes in honesty as a sign of genuine friendship, being nice is just a secondary concern. It’s not that there’s no value in being kind and considerate, but in relationship with the good and the right, the first are just instrumental values. I am not critical of genuine nice behavior, which is equivalent with kindness and generosity. (For someone who has the character traits of kindness and generosity, to be called ‘nice’ would understate the value of those traits.) I would argue that truthfulness and rightness are even higher values than kindness and generosity. In this essay I am questioning what I identify as trend of subordinating values like truthfulness and rightness to the value of niceness.  While good motivations and right goals can be wrapped in niceness, so can questionable and evil ones. This is a fact accessible to common sense. If even children can spot dissimulative behavior, how come we value niceness to the point of being willing to ignore the intentions behind it? Maybe because someone’s being nice to us is experienced as an approval of ourselves.

The judgment that another’s person’s behavior is nice reveals more about ourselves than it does about the person called nice. Someone being nice to me is an approval of me. I become enamored with the image of myself that motivated the other’s being nice. Their person and genuine motivation become of secondary importance. The attempt to take a peek behind the flattering image created for me is doubly threatening: it poses the risk of revealing an ugly image of the other, and the risk of losing the flattering reflection of myself. It is way more pleasant and comfortable to look at pretty images than to think of and put effort into pursuing what is true and right. On the other hand, learning that there is a limit to making the truths pleasant is part of becoming an adult.

Someone experienced as failing at being nice is often described as being mean. The most common reason for finding that someone is not nice, have to do with their not acting as I desire, or with their not approving of my ways. A person whose world of values and concern is limited to personal preferences and desires, risks their own extinction whenever the trends that dictate their preferences change. When community is not driven by individual dedication to truth and justice, but by my effort to make myself liked by you, and by your effort to get my approval, apart from the concern that reality might be distorted, too much pressure is put on the individual. If solidarity is not motivated by ideas that exceed me and you, then at stake in our getting together is me and you. Community should not be motivated by the fight for our own interests, but for what is right, just, and good.

At the same time, if actions are primarily judged in terms of niceness, we might wonder whether all of us start with just as good of a shot at being found nice.  Some of us are better actors than others, and not all of us have the most appealing of physical features to illustrate our effort of being nice. Some of us appear as nice before the first attempt gesture, while others have to work a lot to overturn the first impression of not being nice that their simple presence makes.

To say that someone is good, is to refer to their motivations and persistent traits. The fact that statistically people describe others and expect of themselves niceness rather than goodness does not necessarily mean that their scale of values is distorted. The optimistic interpretation is that people are implicitly aware that goodness is not as easy to display as niceness, and that goodness figures less in ordinary life than niceness does. Goodness is an attribute of the truly excellent. Most of us can only handle being nice.




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