When it comes to virtue, it’s difficult to find a better guide than Aristotle.
Growing up, I never considered myself to be particularly nice, perhaps because I’m from a rural part of New Brunswick, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces— the conspicuously “nicest” region in a self-consciously nice country. My parents are nice in a way that almost beggars belief—my mother’s tact is such that the strongest condemnation in her arsenal is “Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t like it, per se…” As for me, teenage eye-rolls gave way to undergraduate seriousness, which gave way to graduate-student irony. I thought of Atlantic Canadian nice as a convenient way to avoid telling the truth about the way things are—a disingenuous evasion of the nasty truth about the world. Even the word nice seems the moral equivalent of “uninteresting”— anodyne, tedious, otiose.
That’s why I remember being a bit shocked when my colleagues at my first job in Massachusetts kept informing me that I was “too nice” to share my opinion about something or someone. Didn’t they know they were speaking to a percipient and courageous truth-teller? Maybe it was my harrowing stint as a commuter in Worcester—why won’t these people on the MassPike in fact use their “blinkahs”?—or maybe becoming a dad softened me up, but I have, initially with some dismay, found myself increasingly enjoying trying to be nice.
But my newfound appreciation for niceness may have come too late: Niceness has fallen on hard times. Even bare civility has become the target of a serious theoretical critique. As Tavia Nyong’o and Kyla Wazana Tompkins bracingly put it in a recent online article, “Eleven Theses on Civility,” “Civility is not care, but it pretends to be.” By masking the violence of unjust social systems with complaints about discursive violence, “calls for civility seek to evade…calls for change.”
Doubtless, these and other criticisms are partly, even mostly, true about the way civility is often deployed in political argument. But as Teresa Bejanshows so well in her book Mere Civility, civility doesn’t necessarily mean being nice or polite, and it’s more than a set of procedural rules for public argument. Civility, rather, means engaging with those with whom one fundamentally disagrees, and so a curious feature of these latest skirmishes in the civility war is the basic civility of civility’s critics. In observing that the entirecivility game—usually identified as “tone policing”—is often marshaled to constrain political discussion within certain parameters, civility’s critics are doing the heavy lifting of civil discourse.
One strength of Mere Civility is Bejan’s insistence that civility is actually a sort of conversational virtue, though not a particularly nice one. So one defense of civility would consist of contrasting it with a milquetoast quality like “niceness.” But can we push things just a little further and actually defend being, for lack of a better word, nice? Even online? Could being nice be a virtue, and can it be a virtue even in the struggle for social justice?
When it comes to virtue, it’s difficult to find a better guide than Aristotle. While there is no description of the virtue of civility or niceness in his most famous account of the good life, the Nicomachean Ethics, he does present an array of seemingly minor virtues pertaining to common life that cover similar ground. Ranging from gentleness and honesty to wit or tact, the social virtues seem like a decided step down after the memorable peak of his discussion of moral virtue in greatness of soul. But it is precisely in contrast to greatness of soul that the social virtues emerge as so important.
Aristotle initially presents greatness of soul as the ordered whole of moral virtue—an ornament for the megalopsychos, the person with complete virtue, that makes the rest of the virtues shine that much brighter. This person is truly great, and knows it. Greatness of soul is presented as virtue that governs one’s relationship to the greatest honors and thus to the esteem of the community, but it turns out that the only person whose judgment the megalopsychos ultimately consults is himself. The great-souled one cares little for the world outside himself, even to the point of lacking wonder (thaumastikos), which in the Metaphysics Aristotle says comes naturally to human beings. It perhaps goes without saying that the person with greatness of soul is not a great party guest: He is unusually direct in his evaluations of others, and “disposed to feeling contempt for others.” He refuses most honors and requests for aid, fails to remember boons or evils done him by others, and is incapable of living with consideration of another (unless it is a friend). Aristotle’s description of the megalopsychos culminates in an almost comic portrayal of a man (of course it’s a man) with a low voice and a slow gait, who can hardly be bothered to interact with those around him. The great-souled person is thus the image of perfect self-sufficiency. As a result, he isn’t very civil and definitely isn’t nice.
From a certain vantage point, Aristotle at first blush seems to condone the apparent haughtiness of the great-souled person, since it’s justified. But since greatness of soul seems to abstract so completely from human dependence on others, the inclusion of such attributes as gentleness, friendliness, and wit in his catalogue of virtues directly after his characterization of the megalopsychos seems like an invitation to consider what it might mean to flourish alongside others. Since the great-souled individual cares little for the affairs of others, it’s impossible to imagine him possessing a virtue like friendliness. Friendliness, we learn, differs from friendship per se because it arises not from passion but “as a result of being the sort of person one is” in order to give pleasure to others. A friendly person therefore acts similarly toward people she knows and people she doesn’t—she is discriminately indiscriminate in her pleasantness.
Aristotle enumerates yet another similar virtue at the very end of his description of the moral virtues, variously called wit or tact. Wit or tact is what the friendly person displays in times of relaxation—not only being funny, but doing so in the right way and listening to others. It’s not clear what precisely makes one tactful from Aristotle’s perspective, although it’s necessarily situational (and what could be worse than defining what it means to be funny?). But the comparison here seems not just to what might be amusing, but to the ways in which wit differs from the other major image of excellence in the Ethics. When Aristotle emphasizes the lightness and motion of the character of the tactful or witty person, we cannot help but see it as a counterpoint to the inactivity of greatness of soul. Aristotle even makes an Aristotle joke in his account of wit, saying that the eutrapelos (witty person) is etymologically related to eutropos, a word meaning dexterity, versatility, or being “good at turning.” Wit may not be as grand as greatness of soul, but its seeming motion and life are themselves winsome.
Aristotle bestows unusually high praise on this humble virtue, noting that the tactful person is “a sort of law unto [himself ]”; in thinking of the other, we learn how to most fully govern ourselves. But the irruptive character of laughter—the fact that it is always surprising and unbidden (which is probably why “lol” is the preeminent surviving Internet shorthand from the AOL Messenger days)—demonstrates our lack of self-sufficiency. Wit and tact thereby allow for a certain independence or self-governance by helping us say the right things so as not to offend, while also reminding us that we are limited, relational beings.
So “being nice” can be more than cynically smoothing over differences. Niceness’s concern for pleasing others, and its affirmation of our dependence and limitation, paints a fuller picture of what it means to be human. The great-souled person, who is both right and good, is in danger of losing this insight, and perhaps those who would jettison civility in the interest of justice run a parallel risk in a way that might be inimical to solidarity. If the goal of social justice is in part to help us understand the full extent to which solidarity is an ethical necessity, then cultivating the virtue of being nice is not a barrier to justice, but a path toward it.