Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Niceness is Not a Virtue

Here is an interesting argument by Peter Augustine Lawler about niceness. And here is the cliff notes version. While I do not necessarily agree with Lawler's political views, he makes some interesting arguments:
The key objection to niceness amounts to the fact that it's not really a virtue. You can't rely upon it as the foundation for the duties required of friends, family members, or fellow citizens. A nice person won't fight for you; a nice person wouldn't even lie for you, unless there's something in it for him. A nice person wouldn't be a Good Samaritan, if it required genuine risk or an undue deployment of time and treasure. A nice person isn't animated by love or honor or God. Niceness, if you think about it, is the most selfish of virtues, one, as Tocqueville noticed, rooted in a deep indifference to the well-being of others. It's more selfish than open selfishness, because the latter accords people the respect of letting them know where you stand. I let you do — and even affirm — whatever you do, because I don't care what you do as long as it doesn't bother me. Niceness, as Allan Bloom noticed, is the quality connected with flatness of soul, with being unmoved by the relational imperatives grounded in love and death.
One of the interesting things about this argument is that I have seen some support for it in the sociological literature. Nice people are tolerant because they are apathetic. "Tolerance" is simply another way to say that one does not care.

For the purposes of argument, Lawler sees brutal as the opposite of nice. Lawler also argues that
making work less "brutal" in one way makes it, in a more subtle sense, more brutal in another, or more suited to what C.S. Lewis called "men without chests." Many employees, after all, now are required to be nicer than ever. They can't say, for example, the edgy "no problem" when confronted with an unreasonable request of a client or customer; they're scripted to say the more masochistic "my pleasure." And it just might be that one reason most Trump voters are men is that men suffer disproportionally in a world where the faking of pleasure is a condition of employment.
Niceness can be a form of brutality. I have witnessed that first-hand. But in the end, Lawler argues that the choice between niceness and brutality is a false choice:
Neither being nice nor being brutal is being virtuous. And moral virtue is, after all, the foundation of the common life shared by all political beings inhabiting a particular part of the world. Both niceness and brutality are forms of domination and control. Both work against the consent of the governed who rule and are ruled in turn.
Seen in this light, we ought to promote virtue rather than niceness. The scriptures nowhere ask us to be nice because the word never appears in the scriptures.

Gayle Clegg relates the story of Agnes Caldwell (fuller version here) who ran into the meanest man alive, Heber William Henry Kimball.
They [the Willie Handcart Company] were caught in heavy storms and suffered terrible hunger and cold. Relief wagons came to deliver food and blankets, but there were not enough wagons to carry all the people. Even after rescue, the majority of the people still had to trudge on many more miles to the safety of the valley.

Little nine-year-old Agnes was too weary to walk any farther. The driver took notice of her determination to keep up with the wagon and asked if she would like a ride. She tells in her own words what happened next:

“At this he reached over, taking my hand, clucking to his horses to make me run, with legs that … could run no farther. On we went, to what to me seemed miles. What went through my head at that time was that he was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of. … Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped [and pulled me into the wagon]. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up … warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind, as I surely did, knowing full well by doing this he saved me from freezing when taken into the wagon” (in I Walked to Zion [1994], 59).

The driver of that relief wagon made the little girl run as far and as fast as she could to push blood back into her frozen feet and legs. He saved her legs, possibly her life, by letting her help herself.
Imagine what might have happened to little Agnes if the Heber Kimball had been nice.