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The Difference Between Being Nice and Being Good

I think one of the characteristics of the idealism of the WEIRD Platonic cognitive style is that it tends to conflate two very different concepts of being nice and being good.  People who tend toward that cognitive style tend to interchange nice with good.  They think that when they are being nice they are also beinggood.  As Charles Murray explains in his book his book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life that’s not always the case. 

27. Come to grips with the difference between being nice and being good.

Just as the words vulgar, unseemly, and dishonorable are not ordinarily used in conversation today, neither is virtue. The disuse of virtue is part of today’s nonjudgmentalism. It’s acceptable for people to have values, which will differ across people (and who is to say that one set of values is better than another?), but the word virtue carries with it connotations of invariance and objectivity. And rightly so. Let me make a brief case for the objective, universal applicability of the cardinal virtues in our quest to become not just nice, but good.

Nice and good are different. Being nice involves immediate actions and immediate consequences—you give water to the thirsty and comfort to the afflicted right here, right now. Being good involves living in the world so that you contribute to the welfare of your fellow human beings. Sometimes the immediate and long-term consequences are consistent with being nice; sometimes they are in conflict. That’s where the importance of the cardinal virtues comes in.

The four cardinal virtues were originated by the Greeks. They subsequently got their label from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge,” because they are pivotal: All the other virtues, and the living of a virtuous life, depend on them. If you took an introductory philosophy course in college, they were probably translated from the Greek as courage, justice, temperance, and prudence.

Courage, meaning not just physical but also moral courage, is pivotal because no virtue is sustained in the face of adversity without it.

Justice—as defined by Aristotle, giving everyone his rightful due—is pivotal because it is a precondition for behaving in other virtuous ways (for example, the virtue of compassion rightly takes different forms for people in different circumstances).

Temperance is, to modern ears, an unfortunate label. It sounds insipid. Aren’t we supposed to live life to the fullest? Haven’t we decided, along with Mae West and Liberace, that too much of a good thing can be wonderful? But when you stop to think about it, too much of a good thing isn’t wonderful. It cloys. Satiates. The pleasure ends. If you still are unhappy with the idea of being temperate, think in terms of self-restraint and knowing oneself, both of which are part of the meaning of sophrosyne, the word Plato used for this virtue. Temperance is pivotal because, without it, any subsidiary virtue will be ignored when it competes with natural appetites.

That leaves prudence, the cardinal virtue that requires the most work and time for you to acquire. It is also the virtue with the most unappealing label of all, with its connotation of timidity. The idea of other people saying of me, “Charles is very prudent,” is mortifying. But this is a function of evolving language. Prudence has acquired negative connotations that it did not formerly possess. Let’s go back to the original Greek word for this cardinal virtue, phronesis, which I introduced in tip #21.

Aristotle talks about two kinds of wisdom. One is the ability to apprehend reality and make the pieces fit together—roughly, the kind of wisdom that underlies science. Phronesis is the word Aristotle used for the other kind of wisdom, better translated in the twenty-first century as practical wisdom. Phronesis is harder to come by than scientific knowledge. Studying reality is not enough. Practical wisdom means the ability to rightly assess the consequences of a course of action. Knowledge is necessary, but so is experience. You might want to be compassionate, for example, but without practical wisdom you might behave in ways that cause suffering rather than relieve it. Balancing all the considerations that go into rightly assessing long-term consequences is difficult, and it requires both thoughtfulness and a deep understanding of human life. Thus the cardinal virtue of practical wisdom is pivotal because it is the precondition for behaving in other virtuous ways.

Hence my proposition: The cardinal virtues are indispensable to being good. I don’t mean that theoretically, but in the course of going about your daily life. You really, truly, must be courageous, just, temperate, and possess practical wisdom if you also wish to be dependably kind, merciful, compassionate, tolerant, patient, or to practice any of the other virtues. Lacking the cardinal virtues, you can act in those other virtuous ways haphazardly, and occasionally have the effect you wish, but you cannot consistently have the effect you wish, nor will you be able to bring yourself to behave in those other virtuous ways when the going gets tough. You will still mean well. You will still be nice. You won’t be good.

You don’t need to be an Aristotelian to be good. For two millennia, the world’s other most influential ethical system was Confucianism. The central virtue in Confucianism is ren, the summation of all subsidiary virtues. Ren translates as humaneness or benevolence, but the Confucian conception of ren is richer than either word conveys. Ren incorporates the idea of reciprocity (a form of the Golden Rule), which overlaps with Aristotle’s concept of justice. Ren incorporates courage. Confucianism is emphatic about the need for temperance and self-control. And one of the chief components of ren is the considered, accurate appraisal of consequences that Aristotle described as practical wisdom. If you are a good Confucian, you will be practicing the cardinal virtues.

Whether you find inspiration in the Western or the Eastern tradition is a minor issue. What is unacceptable is to go through life thinking that being nice is enough. You must come to grips with the requirements for being good.


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