I rub the slippery surface of my dorm lobby’s couch. “Look, the thing is, I just don’t trust-,”
“Why don’t you?” my friend asks. “What’s the difference? If you do nice things, then you’re a nice person.”
“I disagree,” I say. Midnight nears, and this starts to look like one of those late night college conversations, the ones that rob me of sleep – and sometimes, sanity. “You have to look deeper.”
“Why though?” she prods. “Either way, the nice action or whatever is accomplished. Does it matter what the person’s motivation is? Wouldn’t it be annoying to always distrust people?”
Well, I think, as I smile and nod and agree to disagree, I officially don’t trust you. Or your family. Or your family’s cow. If your family even owns a cow…
Maybe I’ve been reading too much Aristotle, but I do not believe that doing nice things always makes you a nice person. At the core of this argument lies a key question: what constitutes a “nice” action? If taken without an inner moral, someone who does nice things is not a nice person, he or she just obeys society’s standards. I’m sure supporting racially segregated water fountains was considered nice quite a few years ago – back then, wasn’t that just a measure to protect the immune systems of a superior color? Preventing gay people from garnering equal rights, fighting against a woman’s choice to attain an abortion, and other divisive issues highlight the difficult, if not impossible task of creating a single principle of niceness.
Moving away from hot button topics, if an individual shows external motivation, he or she does not possess the same selflessness displayed by someone with intrinsic kindness. If a man named “Bob” acts nice to you for the sake of appearing nice, to some extent you may not notice anything amiss. But if that extrinsic impetus were to disappear – if no one were there to judge Bob other than Bob himself – would Bob still fight for you or treat you with genuine compassion? While these terms branch out into the abstract, a nice person should have some inner goodness, some actual extent of caring, or some deeper value that motivates him or her to serve a cause for the sake of the cause itself.
Being a good person is not black and white; it is multifaceted, comprised of several qualities, some perhaps inborn, others requiring hard work. We can’t just assume Britney Spears is a good person because she says she loves gay people and dedicates one of her songs to us – if we think with depth, her statement harms gays because it generalizes us as “adorable” and “hilarious”
when in real life I know some gay people who are neither of those things like me wait what. I agree that action helps shape character, but it does not determine it: if someone with anti-Semitic beliefs like Hitler were to embark on a recycling rampage, he would not impress me. The same thought process applies to a misogynistic man who appears considerate and kind. Even if he does not degrade women himself, that aspect of his overall entity would affect whether or not I would perceive him as truly nice.
Just like correlation does not imply causation, good deeds do tend to form good character, but not always. While I appreciate and love acts of kindness, we should examine why we do the things we do, so we can improve ourselves inside and out.
Do you guys agree or disagree with what I’ve written? I apologize for the repetition of “nice” and my lack of specificity concerning “niceness” and “goodness.” I will ruminate on that later on. Do you believe in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, or that one is better than the other?
Every time I write a post it makes me miss blogging more and more; I cannot wait to respond to several of your lovely comments and messages after lunch. Schoolwork, social life, and Assassins have kept me busy – but once Thanksgiving and winter break roll around, you will see more activity from this quiet voice. You can check out my brief thoughts on The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe and King Lear by Shakespeare here and here respectively, and I hope you all have a wonderful week!