I’ve been writing a lot lately about the trouble with commitments to being nice or caring (Virtue Verbiage; Conventional Wisdom) and have gotten interesting feedback on these columns. A few said these were especially useful. One particularly liked that I said people should be nice, which wasn’t my point. Several doubted my claim that people believe they should always be nice.

This last feedback got me thinking about theory and practice. Yes, in practice most of us know we can’t be nice or caring always. It’s mostly when people get theoretical that I hear the kind of one-sided wisdom I’ve been criticizing. Still, most of us really do seem to harbor a philosophical commitment to niceness and caring as though they were universal moral virtues.

To see if you do, compare these two statements from an acquaintance:

“Last time I saw you, you weren’t nice.”
“Last time I saw you, you weren’t dressed up.”

If the first feels more like a criticism, it’s because nice is not just any old adjective. It’s one we associate very firmly with right behavior. And of course we do. We all prefer people to be nice and caring with us. My point was that though we all prefer it, in the give-and-take realities of life, rationally, there can’t be a moral imperative to be nice.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

And being nice is just one example. My criticism is of commitments to monolithic moral principles, including that we should all be kind, generous, positive, honest, hopeful, present in the moment, mindful, accepting-any strongly positive abstract noun or phrase denoting some category of human behavior.

In theory we should always be nice; in practice we know we’re not. What do we do with the discrepancy? This week I want to consider how we manage the gap between what in theory we think we should always do, and what in practice we do do. I count four basic moves:

1.    Patience, I’m getting there: It’s true I’m not always nice, but it’s also true that I should be nice. You see, I’m a work in progress. I’ve got a lot of baggage to overcome-years of worthless conditioning that persuades me to do the wrong thing. I still hope to become a truly nice person and it bothers me how far short I fall.

2.    There are human limits: I should be nice, but I’m not. Yes, I work on it, but really nobody’s perfect. We try but we’re never going to be nice all the time even though we certainly should be-and if we were, everything would work better.

3.    You’re seeing things: We should always be nice, I know, and I work on it very hard. The particular thing you’re wondering about that I did-I know you think maybe that wasn’t nice, but I think you misunderstood it. See, that was something else. I’m not being defensive, but I do really try to be nice and I think if you understood what was going on back there you would see that I wasn’t being nasty or anything. I was actually being nice.

4.    Accepting what is: One shouldn’t strive to follow rules. It only gets in the way. Yes, niceness is better than not-niceness, but acceptance is better than striving, so while abstractly I should be nicer, that sort of misses the point-which is to be more accepting of what is.

Persuasive as one or another of these four options can seem, they each brew trouble. They give us reasons for not bothering to think through our morality and wisdom as clearly as we must in order to deal effectively, practically, and responsibly with the complexities of real life. Here I’ll give voice to ways they can brew trouble for us:

1.    Patience, I’m getting there: If I know what I should be doing and I’m not doing it, then I’m a bit of a screw-up. It’s just another indication that I’m not good enough. Of course, none of us are, which could mean that I’m better than all the other screw-ups because at least I know how far short I fall. In fact, if I want, I can gauge how far I am ahead of others by simply noting whether they say they believe that niceness is the way or not. If they don’t or don’t seem to care, I’m definitely further along and more humble than they are. Also if people aren’t nice to me, it is my duty to point it out. People should be forced to admit when they’re in the wrong. If, like me, they sincerely regret how far short of the mark they fall, then of course it’s forgivable. But we have to take responsibility for our failings. If I’m disappointed by someone’s behavior, it’s clearly because they have failed to be nice when they should, and they should admit their mistake.

2.    There are human limits: I don’t really have to live up to the moral standard. Nobody does. Yes, it’s a strange world where the right thing to do is ultimately undoable. Why can’t we do right? Either because doing right is something for superhuman godlike beings (which we’re not), or because, as many religions suggest, it’s some sort of test given to us by Gods that we’re destined to fail at. Any way you cut it, the principle to be nice is from some other realm. It doesn’t really apply to us, or it applies in some strange inapplicable way.

3.    You’re seeing things: Look, I know right from wrong, and unlike other people I’m not just paying lip service to morality. I live by it. Really, I’m not likely to make the mistake of being unkind. I pay too much attention to it. So if you think I’m being unkind, you’re just missing something. You see, niceness isn’t just being nice. It’s doing what I think is right. There’s a difference between being kind and just sucking up to people, which I’m not about to do. So though you think I should have treated you more nicely, you’re wrong. I’m not going to suck up. But am I moral? You bet. I’m always nice. I can see how you might not be good at distinguishing niceness from sucking up. The distinction is subtle. Really, I’m the only guy I know who is careful enough to get it.

4.    Accepting what is: It is important to be moral but it’s more important to be natural. People who try to be other than they are will fail. You have to be yourself. The goal of changing yourself is a kind of spiritual greed. Just be. Don’t fret or worry about your inadequacies. It will only keep you from being your natural self. If you ever get to where you can really let go and be in the now rather than grasping greedily for what you aren’t, then yes you would attain a state of perfection, a state of being kind and nice and understanding to all. Live selflessly and you will be rewarded. Paradoxically. to become a perfectly nice person, all it takes is to let go of all anxious greedy striving to be a nice person. And if you think the evidence doesn’t support that idea, it’s just because you haven’t really let go all the way.

I’m all for facing the gaps between what we are and what we could be better. But it’s really important to pick your gaps carefully. Yes, keep your eyes on the prize-but which prize to keep your eyes on is the real question. The prize of being nicer, more generous is a good one. Being nicer is a good goal. Being absolutely nice is not, and yet for many of us the word and words like it are simple shorthand for the always-right thing to do. As such these words become cudgels used either unconsciously or cynically to bully people into the behavior we prefer. Theoretical, philosophical, or theological commitments to such moral absolutes stop us short of noticing the inescapable give-and-take work of real life. There’s no more wisdom in always accommodating (being nice) than there is in always asserting (being not nice). But all of that’s lost when we live bipolar lives, claiming to believe in the value of always accommodating and yet never living up to that lofty yet inaccurate standard. The problem is not that upholding this kind of standard is difficult but that it’s an unworthy goal in the first place.