Reviews > Culture

When nice is a vice

Culture | Without the proper foundation, niceness can conflict with virtues

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

Americans, by and large, are nice. And even when we are not, we seem to value niceness, sometimes above all else.

Sociologists studying our contemporary culture report that Americans do have strong moral beliefs, but ranking highest among them is the ethical imperative to be nonjudgmental, tolerant, and affirming of other people no matter what. That is to say, to be nice.

Niceness, of course, also includes generosity, friendliness, and kindness-qualities that Americans exhibit to an astonishing degree, even when we are fighting a war.

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After the 9/11 attacks, the White House code-named the anti-terrorism crusade "Infinite Justice." But soon after, that title and the word crusade were deemed offensive to Muslims, so they were changed and apologized for. One wonders at what point other countries need to become sensitive lest they offend us.

When we attacked the Taliban, we dropped both bombs and food. The yellow packets of food, designed to flutter to earth, contained vegetarian fare that would not violate any culture's dietary rules, guaranteed not to offend.

Military experts said that such generosity, feeding your enemies while bombing their nation, was unprecedented in the annals of warfare. Certainly, the United States adopted nice tactics for good reasons both diplomatic and moral. But it was also a distinctly American gesture, an expression of aggressive goodness to defy a heartless enemy.

Such niceness is a good thing, impressive and something to be proud of. Yes, people in other countries often mock our niceness, which they interpret as idealistic and naive. But they often recognize its charm and, when they are the beneficiaries, as when the United States rebuilt a defeated Japan and Germany and made them economic powerhouses, they sometimes appreciate it.

We need to remember, though, that niceness, while an important cultural value, is not a virtue in itself. According to traditional ethics, the four cardinal virtues are justice (giving to everyone what they deserve), prudence (attending to practical consequences), fortitude (having the courage to do what is right), and temperance (exercising control over one's appetites and passions).

Sometimes niceness conflicts with these virtues. A boss may choose to be nice and nonconfrontational with an employee, when justice would demand that he be fired. Economic policy might try to promote generosity to the poor, out of nice intentions, while actually harming them through unintended consequences, a violation of prudence. Sometimes niceness can be an excuse to take the easy, pleasant way to avoid an unpleasant problem, a violation of fortitude, or to give rein to one's sentimental feelings, a violation of temperance.

Maybe we have become too nice to disapprove of anyone, resulting in the loss of social pressure that used to enforce cultural norms. Women and men having children outside of marriage once faced the disapproval of their friends and neighbors. Homosexuality, extramarital sex, and seemingly smaller vices such as bad language were "socially unacceptable." Today, expressing disapproval of such things seems the only socially unacceptable practice.

Although niceness cannot be found in the traditional lists of virtues, it probably grew out of the so-called "theological virtues," which are faith, hope, and love. (Strictly speaking, these are gifts of God, not virtues in the sense of things we should do, but these three were added to the classical four cardinal virtues to counter the Seven Deadly Sins. Justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance were considered "natural" virtues that even pagans could exhibit. But only Christians have the foundation for faith, hope, and love.)

Niceness, showing the cultural influence of Christianity, is probably a secularized remnant of "love." We are indeed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies even, and this surely includes being nice to them. But love is more than that.

Love is patient, kind, and forgiving, but it is not particularly tolerant or permissive, as is evident with loving spouses and loving parents. Love is never content simply to leave the other person alone. Sometimes love is not nice.

Love-and niceness-needs a foundation, like the other virtues, namely, the love of God, faith in His Son Jesus Christ, and the hope of everlasting life. Without that, niceness-the kind that embraces all religions as the same, the kind that produces soft-hearted but soft-headed government programs, the kind that papers over important moral issues-can be not a virtue but a vice.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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