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The Politics of Nice

March 4th, 2009 | 3 min read

By Tex

Moral vices prosper by dressing themselves as virtues. Niceness presents itself as benevolence, but is often merely an evasion of hard decisions that the realities of human nature require. And it has spread throughout our societies because it is often popular with voters. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions, and so is a good deal of democratic politics.”

The writer of this headline article at Standpoint, a British mag aiming to "to celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values – in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech – at a time when they are under threat," takes a frontal shot at the politics of “nice”.  While he is particularly interested with the collapse of family and school life, or at least the collapse of well-ordered and socially beneficial families and schools, he makes a larger critique of contemporary politics and public thought, both of which have taken “niceness” as the gold standard and determine policy and action by asking, “Now, what’s the nice thing to do?”

The history of this trend towards niceness would be interesting to explore—the hows and whys of a moral sentiment that has blossomed in a pluralistic society that is otherwise opposed to moral governance or restriction, almost on principle.  The cultural revolution of the late sixties and early seventies was the historical moment of rebellion against established societal norms as an expression of contempt for universal norms, natural laws, or morals.  In light of this rebellion, one might wonder how it is that a new morality has emerged, a public morality of compassion.  My hunch it that this, and the historical movement of political compassion has a great deal to do with anthropology and theology, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

The empirical fact remains that many political debates take place in the context of a culture of “nice.”  Is the proposed solution a nice one?  Does it implement and promote social compassion?  Does it give the public those warm and benevolent feelings that often follow on the heels of generous action?  If the answer to these and similar questions is “yes”, then the debate is usually over.  The problem, though, is that compassion is not the lone guide to effective social policy.

Political compassion, or niceness, was never meant to serve as rubric for social action; indeed, compassion is a feeling or sentiment of concern and pity, not a substitute for prudence or empirical research.  Feelings and sentiments motivate a general action, but are useless in the determination of the specific action to take.  Examples abound, and a simple one drawn from common experience should suffice.

A child comes to her mother, math homework in one hand while wiping away tears of frustration with the other.  Mom, being the loving and caring sort, sees her daughter’s predicament and is filled with pity.  Her pity motivates her to try and help her daughter, but her prudential wisdom, her understanding of her daughter’s real needs, and her beliefs about growth and education will determine if her pity moves her to do her daughter’s homework for her, or to sit down and help instruct her on the finer details of long division.

Pity alone will not determine action.  Pity combined with other character traits, beliefs, and desires result in specific plans, courses, and results.  The current exaltation of political compassion shines a spotlight on the collective character, beliefs, and goals of political body—and judging from current social maladies the revelation is discouraging.  We can expect compassion combined with complacency, pity, self-love, and an enthrallment with personal experiences of catharsis to lead to social solutions and actions that yield a great deal of positive feelings, but that generally fail to deliver permanent goods.

Short-term solutions to long-term problems don’t worry people who like the sense of accomplishment that comes from having a solution, any solution, and allow them to bustle along to each new problem with a great deal of self-congratulation.  The Western world’s approach to poverty and hunger in developing nations, and especially Africa, is a fine example of societies acting out of compassion with the goal of national catharsis rather than securing permanent wealth for the nations in need.

Are politicians, NGOs, and social leaders are asking us all to be compassionate, but compassion alone is of little benefit when determining a course of action.  It’s nice to ask questions like these, but political decisions ought to ask a whole lot more.