More Than Niceness

A Roundabout Appreciation for WWJD Bracelets

Todd Brewer / 6.3.21

When you walk into a store, do you hold the door open for the person behind you? If your neighbor is moving, do you offer to help with the boxes? What makes for a good co-worker? If your friend’s life falls apart from a single phone call, how might you respond to their text for help?

In my years of teaching, these were the kinds of questions I routinely posed to unsuspecting undergrads. The answers to these may or may not be obvious, but they were meant to provoke further reflection on what might govern one’s moral decision making.

Religion and ethics professors love to debate the controversial, cool topics with their students — things like gun control, animal rights, or whatever headline happens to catch the media’s attention that week. Politics makes any subject feel flashy, giving a veneer of relevance that, frankly, appears irresistible to discouraged professors struggling to make tenure.

But the topics that seem like matters of life and death often are not, and more meager interests can be far more consequential. No one’s life is changed over discovering Aristotelian virtue ethics while weighing the merits of proportional taxation. What mattered more were the predicaments and routines of everyday life. Relevance and the quotidian are inversely proportional.

While my colleagues were well-intentioned to examine the social issues writ large, the more commonplace realities were always the least examined. We all have baseline assumptions about what constitutes the good life, how to be a friend, or how to relate to strangers. This kind of everyday morality tends to fly under the radar. And when it comes to the thorny predicament of weighing one’s self-interest against the needs of other, most people simply want to be nice, or at least to appear nice to others.

A friend recently texted me to ask for a ride to the airport. I didn’t respond at first, and then a follow-up text arrived an hour later. A third text ten minutes later communicated a degree of desperation. His flight departed at 5:00am on a Saturday morning, which meant a 3:00am pickup time. My sleep is precious to me, and I had zero interest. I knew it was going to wreck my weekend. I tried rehearsing excuses in my head for why I was going to say no. My car was in working order. I obviously had nothing else going on. Hadn’t he heard of Uber?

I dropped him off at the dang airport. Why? Because it was the nice thing to do.

Now, being nice isn’t always applauded today. We might say, “Nice guys finish last,” in business and in life more broadly. But that’s more the exception that proves the rule. There’s a reason why Ellen was on TV for almost two decades. And while our online selves are snarky or just flat-out mean, no one confesses that they are proud to be a jerk. Even the desire to at least appear nice shows how predominate the idea is.

Niceness is a habituated, almost instinctual, ethic that governs everything from how children are raised to professional standards of conduct. Of course, there are different definitions of the nice thing to do depending on cultural contexts, as demonstrated by the fact that Southerners are famously hospitable and New Yorkers pegged as cold. Even still, niceness is a profoundly simple concept, conveying the shorthand definition of what a society deems appropriate behavior for interpersonal relationships, however close or distant.

When faced with low-level moral quandaries we might say, “Don’t be that guy,” or pause in a brief moment of self-reflection to ask “AITA?” These almost-slogans reveal that niceness is an ethic that’s been centuries in the making, stretching back to John Locke’s political liberalism and beyond to the  golden rule that’s said to be held by all religions.

The Romans strove to be virtuous (for the most part). Medieval Christians wished to merit eternal life (and acted accordingly). We want to be nice. By comparison, niceness appears to be a vague, if not facile, ethical system that lacks sophistication and rigor. Light on notions of duty or responsibility, the nice thing to do is often a euphemism for the bare minimum required to keep the peace.

These objections, however, often miss the point. Or at least they overlook the beauty of a “nice” ethic. Its lack of specification is precisely its strength, enabling a flexible and adaptive approach to varying problems. What appears to be rudimentary betrays a surprisingly intricate system that answers every predicament with a solitary reference point. Rather than a list of competing values to adjudicate, niceness reduces this complexity to a singular question — “Is it nice to do this?” — one fount from which many tributaries flow.

Niceness, in other words, is the secular equivalent of the WWJD bracelets “the kids” wore in the ’90s. And by “the kids,” I mean me. I was given one such bracelet by a friend and wore it for about a week to impress a girl (I know…). The slogan woven into the fabric was clearly taken to heart.

Setting aside the highly questionable effectiveness of using a piece of clothing to modify your behavior (or make you attractive), I’ve come to appreciate the WWJD motto.

When I read the New Testament and specifically the apostle Paul’s own admonishments and advice to his churches, I do not see the systematic genius of Aristotle, but a man who strove for Christ-like communal life. The redundancy of Paul is difficult to overlook. When faced with moral quandaries, it is as if he asks himself, “What did Jesus do?” and answers accordingly. He (surprisingly) did not look to the Torah for guidance, but “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The life of faith is “Christ formed in you” (4:19). Peter’s grave sin was to not walk “according to the truth of the gospel” (2:14).

For Paul, the love that is the death and resurrection of Jesus designed the basic pattern of social relationships — in every case and without exception. Jesus was the solitary reference point that informed the entirety of human affairs, spanning everything from what to eat to how to treat your enemies.

Paul did not wish for people to be nice to each other, but to give of themselves to each other in love because Christ first gave of himself in love. He aimed for more than pleasantries, desiring to act with an almost instinctual concern for others’ wellbeing. For those accustomed to being nice, what Paul outlines is no less than a radical ethical reframing.

There are a lot of [jerks] out there nowadays, but the world doesn’t need more people who begrudgingly take you to the airport at 3am. The world needs more than niceness — more than simply keeping the peace or calculating the cost. What the world longs for and desperately needs is love: the kind of love that drops everything to help before the third text has to be sent. The kind of WWJD love that befriends even the jerks.

Wouldn’t that be nice?