Is It Good to Be Nice?

on February 7, 2015

Is It Good to Be Nice? Why We Need to Rethink Our Ideas of ‘Nice’ and ‘Mean’

This article was originally published on Breakpoint. It is cross-posted with permission.

“Abortion Is Mean.” So read the bumper sticker on my pastor’s car some years ago. Moral arguments kept falling short, so, he said, the tactics were switched. People understand “mean” and want to be “nice.”

The result, he went on, is that we have a whole generation of nice young people who are passionately pro-life in order to avoid being mean. They are also passionately in favor of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in order, once again, to avoid being “mean.” After all, isn’t being nice the goal?

This is in keeping with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s assessment of what Americans under 30 (and their parents) believe. In “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Teenagers,” Smith uncovered what he called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This worldview has three parts: There is a God, “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by most world religions,” and “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

It’s the morality of the old Google motto: “Don’t be evil.” Or, as more than one teenager told Smith, “Just don’t be an a–hole, that’s all.” So we avoid being mean, which makes people unhappy, and strive to be nice, which presumably makes people happy.

The problem is that “nice” and “mean” are not moral categories. They are not substitutes for “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.” Mean and nice are, in fact, thoroughly subjective judgments. They say something about us and our feelings, but nothing about abortion, marriage, or any other moral question, public or private.

After all, every kid knows that “nice” mommies let you watch lots of TV, do homework with music blasting through your earbuds, buy what you want, and eat Hot Pockets for dinner by yourself whenever you’re hungry. “Mean” mommies make you read books in the quiet, force-feed you a well-balanced, home-cooked dinner that you have to eat seated with the rest of the family, and have all sorts of other rules. My fifth-grade teacher had a reputation for being particularly “mean.” After all, she ran a very disciplined classroom and had high expectations for her students. The “nice” teachers let you off easy.

In moral terms, of course, the “mean” mommies and teachers are the good ones, insofar as they seek to benefit the children in their charge even when it costs them extra work, effort, and hassle. Negligent parents and teachers may wear a patina of “nice,” but are morally suspect, taking, as they do, the easy way rather than doing what is right for their children.

Now that we’re grown, we’ve learned that playing to the crowd and to our egos by being “nice” is easy. Being good requires much, much more effort. Similarly, doing “nice” things and supporting “nice” public policy options is easy. Discerning and standing up for the good and true requires heroic virtue.

Okay then, but isn’t abortion “mean” anyway? It depends on whom you ask. I for one think abortion is mean. But if you ask the people at Planned Parenthood, they’ll tell you that it’s not mean at all. On the contrary, they’ll say, it’s mean to deny women abortions, mean to clutter up women’s decision-making with talk about of the dangers of abortions, mean to deny federal funding for abortions, and mean to think badly of the nice people who work in abortion industry and are only trying to help women.

Which is to say that we’ll never solve anything by trying to use subjective feelings—sentiment—where only moral judgment will do. We need to ask and answer the question of whether abortion—or marriage redefined to include same-sex couples—is good and true. “Good” and “true” tell us about the actions. “Nice” and “mean” only tell us about ourselves.

Sadly, it has been ages since our education system has equipped us and our children to weigh moral arguments. It’s not only easier on our brains to stick with sentiment, it’s what most of us have been trained to do, and so it’s habitual. Slapping labels such as “mean” or “nice,” “hater” or “war on women” on moral problems seems to cover the bases—particularly if you do it so loudly that it drowns out all opposition and (most important) all critical thinking.

In his 1945 novel “That Hideous Strength,” C. S. Lewis creates a sprawling government scientific agency called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE). Though adept at manipulating the public into thinking that it is nice and never mean, NICE is the enemy of all that is good and true. It is the anti-human culture of death incarnate.

In other words, NICE isn’t so nice. And that’s a timeless and helpful reminder to those who cling to the idea that “nice” is all that matters.

Jim Tonkowich is past president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy. His new book The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available for Kindle and hard copy from St. Benedict Press.

  1. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 7, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Semantics, plain and simple!
    Abortion may seem “mean” to you, but it’s a legal procedure that deserves defending as a Right in a free society.
    As for Marriage Equality, just accept the fact that there are millions of people who deserve the right to marry the one they love. It doesn’t affect your marriage one bit!

  2. Comment by Mike Ward on February 7, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Did you even read the article?

  3. Comment by Walter Stiles on February 8, 2015 at 12:40 am

    Our moral arguments are controlled by what key phrase people come up with to justify what they want to do. Very little self examination is done to justify the opposing argument, they just label you as a hater or a person who wants to shove morality down my throat. It doing this they control the language and the argument so people close there minds to the other side of the argument. It is a sad evolution of our society and we are not better for it.

  4. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 8, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Yes actually, I have now re-read it three times over, and it still smacks of semantics.

    To suggest that “Nice Mommies” allow their child to do things that are unhealthy, over a “Mean Mommy”, is overstating a false assumption. After all, parenting isn’t dictated by the child!
    However, as for adults making choices of their own, regarding Life altering decisions, “Nice, Good, Mean, or Bad” doesn’t ‘play’ the way Mr. Tonchowich suggests.

    Suffice to say, there will always be people who slice and dice their words to affect perspectives, whether they are “Good, or Bad”.

  5. Comment by Mike Ward on February 8, 2015 at 8:24 am

    The author never suggested any such thing, and I’m sure you well known it. You’ve done the same thing to me. Simply lying about what was said.

  6. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 8, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Lying, No!
    I’m merely interpreting what I believe he meant, and what he said, sounds ‘fishy’.
    The author suggests that our education system is lacking in nurturing a social conscience, and to some degree he’s right, but moralistic teaching isn’t the chore of our education system, that’s the parents job!

    A secular society isn’t void of morals, it’s simply undefined by denominational influence.

    I sense that the Author, along with many citizens, feels that our society has taken a Moral-Lite approach to living. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless of course, your standards for a moral life exclude everyone who isn’t of the same faith.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “You’ve done the same thing to me” ? I could always be wrong! And that is something many Moralists aren’t willing to admit!

  7. Comment by yolo on February 9, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Secular society that isn’t void of “morals” is as “repressive” as any other society. The difference is that there is no biblical basis for those “morals,” which is why children have been suspended from school for eating pop tarts into the shape of guns or parents are stigmatized because of the weight of their children. So, what makes these “morals” right? And isn’t it really a sort of religion (called political religion in the communist bloc) that invents these “morals” that just happen to be the entire basis of a nanny-state?

  8. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 9, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    I agree, a healthy society needs moral grounding. But morals aren’t exclusive to Christian teaching. I personally applaud Christian ethics and morals, but I also know
    there are highly moral people who are also Atheists.

    Children chewing their pop-tarts into various shapes isn’t anything new, and I wouldn’t blame the lack of morals for that act.
    Parents whose children are overweight should feel the sting of shame. Allowing a child to become obese is an act of neglect and irresponsibility. I’m sorry, but if a kid looks fat, he’s probably, fat!
    (Pop Tarts as a food alternative is also irresponsible parenting).

    I don’t quite understand your last point regarding political religion in the Communist bloc. So please clarify?

    The Nanny state can be measured subjectively.
    Take for instance, many large U.S. corporations that receive tax refunds (even after not being levied any tax liability!). The dollars that are not collected from them is far greater than the dollars spent on (Social) Welfare recipients.

    Thank you, yolo, for your response.

  9. Comment by yolo on February 10, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    And the parents of LGBT children should feel the sting of shame, right?

  10. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 10, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    I have to ask you, why should the parents of LGBT children feel the sting of shame?

    They didn’t do anything wrong! It was simply a genetic development that is not heterosexual.

  11. Comment by yolo on February 10, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Some people are predisposed to eat a lot. I am simply pointing out that liberal denominations are as judgmental as any traditional one, it’s just that who they judge or shame or exclude has no biblical basis. I only bring up certain political philosophies such as Marxism or progressivism to try to identify exactly what philosophy liberal denominations use to determine which people that they shame or exclude. Maybe these denominations would stop declining if they didn’t stigmatize people that they deem unfit, which ironically is what they accuse traditional denominations of doing.

  12. Comment by MarcoPolo on February 11, 2015 at 8:26 am

    I agree, that some of these (–blanks–) would stop declining if they didn’t stigmatize people that they deem unfit.
    I think you made both, your point, and mine!

    And I’m not sure if there is an excuse for eating a lot, unless the caloric demand is requiring it. Such as an elite cyclist or runner. Most humans just don’t move enough to match their intake of calories, and sadly, today our children are fed ’empty calorie’ foods.
    Then there’s endomorphic, and ectomorphic body types of which I believe you were referring to.

    Personally, I think there are as many examples of NICE, and MEAN on all sides of the human spectrum.

  13. Comment by Marty on February 8, 2015 at 11:13 am

    The Cult of Nice is what killed the liberal churches, which is why their numbers are in the tank, and losing more all the time. The feminists whined about the “evil patriarchy” that controlled the churches, and the evil patriarchs proved they did not possess spines or other vital organs, because they gave the feminists everything they asked for, and that paved the way for this whole LGBT crew using the same tactic, “Jesus told you to give me whatever I ask for.” So what do the Nice churches get for their efforts? Empty pews, the Episcopalians’ big cathedral in Washington has to charge $10 admission to visitors because there aren’t enough donors to keep the Cathedral of Nice operating. The “union” church down the street from me resulted from the merger of a failing Presbyterian and a failing UCC congregation, now they can barely afford to pay ONE pastor. Let’s face it, the Nice Cult just doesn’t have enough zing to get people out of bed on Sunday morning. They get plenty of preaching on gun control, gay rights, pro-choice, and racism from every TV show, why bother driving to church to get more of the same? Why pay a pastor to bombard you with the left-wing propaganda you get from your cable package?

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