The case for being nice

On one occasion, when talking to one of my past roommates, I remember asking her why she couldn’t disagree with someone and be nice about it. She followed that question with another question so profound that it prompted me to write this post — “Why”?

I thought about what she said and for the first time in my life I contemplated the “why” of being nice. Are most people kind in anticipation of reciprocation? Is it something deeper than that, inherent to human nature maybe? Maybe it’s just a survival mechanism to appease threats?

Like most of the musings in this blog, I don’t have the answer to those questions but I’d like to explore the topic by first pinning down some definitions.

What IS “kindness”? The definition I found on Google says “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”

Okay, well…what definition can I find for “friendly”?

According to Google it should mean…”kind and pleasant.”

Great, a circular definition.

Looking at the other two words in the definition of kindness, generous and considerate, we get the following two definitions respectively: “showing a readiness to give more of something[…],” and “careful not to cause inconvenience or hurt to others.”

For now let’s define being kind as the willingness to give more resources to another person than needed and not actively trying to hurt others.

Now what are some logical reasons one should be nice from a game-theoretic perspective? With the assumption that being on the receiving end of an act of kindness may bring someone happiness, in the case of a power imbalance, the weaker party can strategically wield kindness as to not be the target of hostility. The stronger party can also get something beneficial from being kind as it may imbue a sense of loyalty in the weaker party. This type of gratitude-bred loyalty can help cement the stronger party’s position.

In the case where both parties hold similar power like a weak-weak or strong-strong relationship, the incentive for being kind may take form in the wish for support from peers. As said before, getting others to like you cements one’s own power. This of course makes the implicit assumption that all parties enjoy being at the receiving end of kindness.

Unraveling more assumptions from my previous arguments, what if weak parties don’t care about survival and being nice to those stronger than them? What if those in power don’t care about cementing their power and being nice to those weaker than them? What is the incentive for being nice when it doesn’t directly benefit the individual showing kindness?

From this perspective nothing stops one another from being mean or indifferent to each other. Well for those cases I think we’d all like to believe that our ethical principals will always lead us away from malfeasance.

Principals that are stemmed from the belief that others are capable of feeling and have even felt at some point in time the same range of emotions we ourselves feel — from love and joy to depression and grief.

I believe this acknowledgement of our shared feelings of joy and pain breeds empathy and a desire for others to be happy that can’t be explained away.

Being nice and the desire to please is as fundamental to the human experience as some of our more biologically dictated instincts like eating or drinking. There may be no “real” reason for being nice, but I’d also say (with that logic) that there’s no “real” reason to do anything. In the end, I’d like to believe most of us can relate to the sentiment of doing no harm — physically and emotionally — and can always strive to be nice regardless of the accompanying rewards.