Is It Good to Be Nice?

Why We Need to Rethink Our Ideas of ‘Nice’ and ‘Mean’

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.


“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.

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