A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations in Favor of Niceness

tl;dr: Some­times, peo­ple don’t try as hard as they could to be nice. If be­ing nice is not a ter­mi­nal value for you, here are some other things to think about which might in­duce you to be nice any­way.

There is a pre­vailing ethos in com­mu­ni­ties similar to ours—athe­is­tic, in­tel­lec­tual group­ings, who con­gre­gate around a topic rather than sim­ply to con­gre­gate—and this ethos says that it is not nec­es­sary to be nice. I’m draw­ing on a com­mon­sense no­tion of “nice­ness” here, which I hope won’t con­fuse any­one (an­other fea­ture of com­mu­ni­ties like this is that it’s very easy to find peo­ple who claim to be con­fused by mono­syl­la­bles). I do not merely mean “po­lite”, which can be su­perfi­cially like nice­ness when the per­son to whom the po­lite­ness is di­rected is in earshot but tends to be far more su­perfi­cial. I claim that this ethos is mis­taken and harm­ful. In so claiming, I do not also claim that I am always perfectly nice; I claim merely that I and oth­ers have good rea­sons to try to be.

The dis­pens­ing with nice­ness prob­a­bly springs in large part from an ex­treme re­jec­tion of the ad hominem fal­lacy and of emo­tion­ally-based rea­son­ing. Of course some­one may be en­tirely mis­er­able com­pany and still have brilli­ant, co­gent ideas; to re­ject com­mu­ni­ca­tion with some­one who just hap­pens to be mis­er­able com­pany, in spite of their brilli­ant, co­gent ideas, is to miss out on the (valuable) lat­ter be­cause of a silly emo­tional re­ac­tion to the (ir­rele­vant) former. Since the point of the com­mu­nity is ideas; and the per­son’s ideas are good; and how much fun they are to be around is ir­rele­vant—well, bring­ing up that they are just ter­ribly mean seems triv­ial at best, and per­haps an in­vo­ca­tion of the afore­men­tioned fal­lacy. We are here to talk about ideas! (In­ter­est­ingly, this same cour­tesy is rarely ex­tended to ap­pal­ling spel­ling.)

The ad hominem fal­lacy is a fal­lacy, so this is a use­ful norm up to a point, but not up to the point where peo­ple who are perfectly ca­pa­ble of be­ing nice, or learn­ing to be nice, ne­glect to do so be­cause it’s ap­par­ently been ren­dered lo­cally worth­less. I sub­mit that there are still good, prag­matic rea­sons to be nice, as fol­lows. (Th­ese are claims about how to be­have around real hu­man-type per­sons. Many of them would likely be ob­so­lete if we were all perfect Bayesi­ans.)

  1. It pro­vides good in­cen­tives for oth­ers. It’s easy enough to de­velop purely sub­con­scious aver­sions to things that are un­pleas­ant. If you are mis­er­able com­pany, peo­ple may stop talk­ing to you with­out even know­ing they’re do­ing it, and some of these peo­ple may have ideas that would have benefited you.

  2. It helps you hold off on propos­ing di­ag­noses. As tempt­ing as it may be to dis­miss peo­ple as crazy or stupid, this is a dan­ger­ous la­bel for us bi­ased crea­tures. Fewer peo­ple than you are tempted to call these things are gen­uinely worth writ­ing off as thor­oughly as this kind of name-call­ing may tempt you to do. Con­ve­niently, both these words (as ap­plied to peo­ple, more than ideas) and closely re­lated ones are cul­turally con­sid­ered mean, and a gen­eral nice­ness policy will ex­clude them.

  3. It lets you ex­ist in a cog­ni­tively di­verse en­vi­ron­ment. Mean­ness is more tempt­ing as an ear­lier re­sort when there’s some kind of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion is more likely when you and your in­ter­locu­tor think differ­ently. Per #1, not mak­ing a con­scious effort to be nice will tend to drive off the peo­ple with the great­est ra­tio of in­ter­est­ing new con­tri­bu­tions to old re­hashed rep­e­ti­tions.

  4. It is a co­op­er­a­tive be­hav­ior. It’s ob­vi­ous that it’s nicer to live in a world where ev­ery­body is nice than in a world where ev­ery­one is a jerk. What’s less ob­vi­ous, but still, I think, true, is that the cost of co­op­er­a­tively be­ing nice while oth­ers are mean is in fact very low. This is partly be­cause hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is vir­tu­ally always iter­ated, (semi-)pub­lic, or both; and also be­cause it’s just not very hard to be nice. The former lets you reap an ex­cel­lent sig­nal­ing effect:

  5. It sig­nals the hell out of your ma­tu­rity, hu­mil­ity, and gen­eral awe­some. If you spend as much time on the In­ter­net as I do, you read a few on­line con­tent pub­lish­ers who pub­li­cly re­spond to their hate mail. It can some­times be funny to read the nasty replies. But I gen­er­ally walk away think­ing more of the mag­nan­i­mous ones who are pa­tient even with their at­tack­ers.

  6. It pro­motes pro­duc­tive af­fect in your­self and oth­ers. The at­mo­sphere of a re­la­tion­ship or group has many effects, plenty of which aren’t cog­ni­tively lu­mi­nous, and some of which can spill over into your gen­eral mood and what­ever you were hop­ing to use your brain for.

  7. It is use­ful in the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sions to draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween be­ing mean to some­one and do­ing some­thing that’s se­ri­ously morally wrong, but this line is fuzzier or com­pletely ab­sent in hu­man prephilo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions. If you are ever trou­bled by eth­i­cal akra­sia, it may be eas­ier to stave off if you try to avoid de­liv­er­ing small slights and in­juries as well as large vi­o­la­tions.

  8. It yields re­sources in the form of friendly oth­ers. Whether you are an in­tro­vert or an ex­tro­vert, other peo­ple can be use­ful to have around, and not even just for com­pan­ion­ship. Com­pared to in­differ­ent or ac­tively hos­tile neigh­bors, it’s an ob­vi­ous win to be nice and win what good­will you can.

  9. It can save time—of­ten yield­ing a net benefit, rather than wast­ing time as is some­times com­plained. For in­stance, if a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion is made, a mean re­sponse is to in­ter­pret the mis­state­ment at face value and ridicule or at­tack—this can de­volve into a time-con­sum­ing fight and may never re­solve the ini­tial is­sue. A nice re­sponse is to gen­tly clar­ify, which can be over in min­utes.