Many men have a tendency to conflate the pursuit of virtue with the pursuit of being a nice person. In fact, it is a fair assessment to state that these two have become synonymous throughout much the western world. This reduction of a good life reflects a diminishment in living morally across the board too; for when we change how we define and categorize something, we also change how we perceive and utilize it. It may not be instantaneous, but the gradual erosion of how we discuss and express morality and noble living is a large catalyst of the breakdown of societal trust and a sense of individual responsibility. This is a major problem of the modern era.
Chances are high that you have probably heard of the terms “nice guy” or “nice guy syndrome.” There is also a common phrase floating around that “nice guys finish last.” If you are a listener of our podcast, you’ll note that we did an entire episode on this replete with applicable stories of our own youth. Elsewhere, you may have seen the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” thrown around, notably by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option. This describes a prevailing view of morality among younger generations of Americans centered around buzzwords, mantras, or life-hacks dictating our goals in life as being nice, being good, and being happy. Due to poor child-rearing and a culture that encourages these feel-good motivations, the highest goals in life for an increasing number of people have become warped forms of pleasure. Whatever term is used to describe this moral shift, it is clear that there is one happening. This change is described by the philosophical trend Alasdair MacIntyre describes in his seminal work, After Virtue – emotivism.
The change from virtue being the highest human good to a perverted sense of niceness is incorrect in three ways. First, it ignores the historical viewpoint of philosophy, theology, and simple praxis. This is not a point to be so easily dismissed. As I mentioned in my post Clinging to Truth, Truth does not change or shift as time goes by. One cannot warp Truth or Truths to his liking because the current year, political preference, or mere feelings dictate that it be so. Looking back throughout history, we see a large prominence of both philosophers and men of action promote virtue and being a good man as the end goal of their existence. The advent of Christianity has furthered that one step, advocating that the pursuit of virtue is both a by-product of life in the Holy Spirit as well as a way to, through God’s grace, further that life; a synergistic cooperation, if you will. To dismiss the common viewpoint of your ancestors is to express ignorance, philosophical cowardice, or a illogical superiority complex over those that came before you.
Another point is that the cult of niceness is a supreme reduction of the classical virtues. Virtue is not necessarily a monolithic structure. Its typical division into the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love) demonstrates just as much. We tend to see people which we regard as good or virtuous as having a majority if not all of these virtues, yet saying “that man has virtue” does not tell the entire story for we all have strengths and weaknesses in all seven areas.
This reduction from the seven highest virtues and their sub-virtues (such as patience, perseverance, etc) to niceness is likely due to a typical external appearance of virtue. One may look at a virtuous man and label him a kind or nice man due to how he appears to you; the opposite is not true, however. You cannot take a nice man or master conversationalist and proclaim him to be virtuous – that is a folly of great proportions. It has been pointed out throughout history though that virtue is not described by or done for appearances. Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, is quick to say that an unjust man can do a just action out of ignorance or out of some other motivation. That does not make him just though, as the action did not proceed from the right spirit in the right way. As we cannot typically see the machinations of a man’s heart motivating him to act, it is easy to thus reduce the good life to merely the pursuit of the outward manifestation of virtue. Successive generations of this coupled with rampant materialism and we seem to have lost the ability to understand the entire inward disposition necessary for truly virtuous action.
This can be reckoned as done in part on account of Occam’s Razor and poor training and stewardship over the virtues. Without a discerning guide (and a hardy prudence) to set you on the right path, a man unburdened by the direction of a foreign master during his formation will typically default to the easiest solution. That answer is to say that the entire point of being virtuous is to be outwardly kind to others, for that is all one can perceive.
How shallow is this solution though? For kindness is much more of a mask than virtue ever good be. It is much harder to feign justice or love than it is to be kind to your enemies. That is another reason Christ does not call us to this milquetoast position, but rather to do what is hard in loving our enemies. To suggest that a life of easiness is the highest goal or leads to the highest good is to engage in libertinism and to cheapen your intrinsic worth.
There is a third reason for fighting against this change: the substitution of reason for emotion. This is the result of emotivism, the idea that ethics and moral judgement proceed from emotions or feelings. Feelings are fickle; they deceive you; reliance on them tunes you in to a more bestial nature. This is not to say emotions or feelings are evil – far from it! They are simply not supposed to occupy the high place of the human soul and spirit. We have been endowed with reason, a faculty which separates us from irrational beasts. Anything other than that as the chief of the soul is a surrender of one’s manhood.
Changing from a virtue-based life to a niceness-based life necessitates that you give up deliberation, choosing your morality based on the circumstances and how you can appear to others (or yourself). It also means that in order for you to be “good,” you must be in the right mood or have slept well the previous night or have hit little traffic on the way home. It is seductive because it feels good (hence the ‘T’ in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), all the while playing the catalyst for abdication of control over one’s life. There is still justice, guilt, and friendship in this world, but there is no end for these except for appearances and how others perceive us. Being a nice guy, rather than a just man, is to be a continuous liar.
Virtue is hard. It’s not going to be the simplest or default path for 99% of all men born on this Earth. But to soothe ourselves by playing the liar, fool, or court jester, is a feeble existence. Being kind is important, but it is not the highest good. To persist in proclaiming such is to act as training wheels are never supposed to be removed from a bicycle. There is no profit for your soul if you play the nice guy. You will soon lose your worldly acclaim as well. Choose the hard path instead, for the sake of eternity and those you love now.