Is there a moral instruction we hear more often than "be nice"?
I'm fairly sure people actually take this instruction to heart, as I, too, just feel terrible if I haven't "been nice."
And if we take it to heart, it might explain why a young women remained next to a man who was clearly trying to harm her - an agitated man who was asking her to "go get a donut or something" in an airport at 3am, his voice getting louder and louder, completely insistent. She was being so nice back, that at first I assumed they knew each other. Only when he walked away did she express terror.
But there may be less dramatic reasons why "being nice" is an unhelpful guide to "being good" in the traditional sense virtue ethics recommends.
And I think they relate to one major difference between the traditional approaches to virtue (that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureans and their modern day fellow travelers) and more recent ones (including very old ones like, even, Hume's.) More recent accounts of virtue may take our common sense accounts of "moral qualities" (niceness a prime example) and fit these into an explanation of the role virtue plays in morality. We widely agree that "niceness" is a good quality, so it would be included in one of these "more modern" accounts.
The older, original versions of virtue ethics are not as willing to take common sense accounts of good qualities at face value. Plato, who we can assume was an opponent of Socrates's execution, made this very clear: societies cannot be trusted to determine right and wrong. We can't just accept what is conventional, or widely accepted, as right.
And Aristotle presents common sense accounts of virtue in work on topics like 'how to give a speech' (his Rhetoric), but these don't mesh with the proposals he makes as he sets out his account of ethics. He has to coin new terms for virtues that haven't yet been recognized, he has to point out that there are right ways of being courageous, that we cannot just trust what we think we can see.
Each potential virtue has to be put to a test: how does it get us to function intellectually? Emotionally? Dispositionally?
The traditional accounts of virtue won't trust that just because we all tend to think "niceness" is a good quality, it should count as virtue.
So how would "niceness" fare? Could it be a virtue? If we ran it through the considerations of traditional virtue ethics, we'd be answering these types of questions.
Intellectually, how does "be nice" function? Does it help us to clarify what our role is? Does it help us to understand ourselves and good behavior better? Does it contribute to an appreciation of why very good acts are good?
Emotionally, how does being "nice" feel? Does it work out long term? Do you feel regret over "being nice?"
What does "being nice" get us to do? Are these the right things to do, in all cases?
I have my doubts about "niceness" when it comes to each of these questions. And I say this as a person who is still willing to admit "you are just not nice" is about the most thorough send-off you can give someone. The problem is that the concept of niceness just isn't disambiguated. It can refer to something crucial to our humanity, but at the same time it can suggest being passive and compliant.
A recent tweet by author Alain de Botton had got me thinking. Not about what he mentions- fear of failure, per se, but about this issue of "niceness" and virtue itself.
Half the fear of failure is of the judgement of false friends we feel compelled to impress but don't even like. @alaindebotton
What a distraction "the judgement of false friends" is! Boy, did that resonate. De Botton's tweet is what reminded me of the young woman being so kind, smiling, responsive, to a stranger trying to get her away from the rest of us in an empty airport.
She was being very nice! Worried, perhaps about the "judgement" of this very "false friend."
I remember how she was shaking as the rest of us finally figured out what was going on and alerted the airline personnel.
I will urge my children to never be that nice. To be virtuous, sure. But never that nice. For goodness's sake.