Are you a nice person or are you a kind person? Do you know the difference? Today I want to talk about whether it’s better to be nice or kind.
Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.
I few weeks ago, I stumbled on a discussion on twitter of all place about the difference between being nice and being kind. It was an idea that I had never really thought about, so today I want to look at this idea from a stoic perspective.
I’m sure that most of us at some point when we were kids were told that we needed to be nice to everyone. We may have been scolded for not “being nice” when we said something that upset someone else, as if we had control over how that other person felt. This was often mixed in with being told that we’re being “unkind”, so I think the place to start is to define each of these terms.
The definition of being nice is, “Pleasing and agreeable in nature. Exhibiting courtesy and politeness”, whereas the definition of kind is, “Generous, helpful, and caring about other people”.
In Stoic philosophy, being kind and being nice are often seen as two distinct virtues. Being kind is generally considered to be an essential virtue, and as a fundamental aspect of being a good person. The Stoics believed that the key to living a virtuous life was to cultivate the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation. Being kind falls under the virtue of justice, since it involves treating others fairly and with empathy. On the other hand, being nice is typically seen as a less essential virtue, because it’s often more focused on pleasing others and avoiding conflict.
Since one of the most important things we learn is stoicism is that we cannot control what other people think or feel, we can see that sometimes people will be nice in an attempt to please or manipulate others. They are trying to control or influence how the other person thinks or feels about them.
On the other hand, being kind is very much within our control. Being kind is when we act in such a way that is helpful to others. We aren’t doing something just so that we look good or that others will like us. We are simply living our principles.
Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?
— Jack Kornfield
If we dig a little deeper in stoic philosophy, the difference between being nice and being kind can also be understood through the the concepts of moral goodness and moral worth. Moral goodness refers to actions that align with virtue whereas moral worth refers to the character of a person.
Being nice can include actions that could be considered virtuous, however, being nice does not necessarily require someone to have a virtuous character. For example, someone may give money to charity simply because it makes them look good, rather than because they genuinely care about the well-being of others. In this sense, being nice is a matter of moral goodness, but not necessarily moral worth.
On the other hand, being kind means having a virtuous character and doing actions that align with virtues. A kind person is someone who consistently demonstrates virtues such as compassion and generosity, not just in their actions, but in their overall disposition and character. Being kind involves both moral goodness and moral worth.
In his letter "On Tranquility of Mind," Seneca wrote, "The first step in a life of wisdom is to establish our moral worth, to make ourselves good men; the second is to become good at what we do." In other words, Seneca believed that in order to live a good life, we must first focus on developing our character and doing virtuous actions.
Similarly, Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." This quote highlights the importance of not just talking about virtues, but actually practicing and embodying them in our lives.
I’ve noticed that some cultures are often kind, but not always nice. Others tend to be nice, but are not necessarily kind. When I lived in Austria, I found that the people were not always nice, and were often very blunt, but they were very kind and would often go out of their way to help friends and strangers in need. Of course, this is just a generalization because it will vary from person to person.
I think in many ways, being nice is more about the appearance of what you do, and kindness is about doing something because it’s the virtuous thing to do. It’s taking care of someone’s kids when they’re in the hospital and not just sending “thoughts and prayers”.
The last aspect of kindness that I want to touch on is that of self kindness. One of the key principles of Stoicism is that external events are beyond our control, and that our happiness is dependent on our own actions and attitudes. This means that being kind is not just about being nice to others, but also about being kind to ourselves and treating ourselves with the same compassion and understanding that we would show to others. In my own experience, I’ve found that as I’ve learned to be kinder and less judgmental to myself, it makes it easier to be kinder and less judgmental of others. In fact, I’ve found that the people who are often harsh on other people are usually really hard on themselves. By being kind to ourselves, we become less judgmental and kinder to others.
While being nice is often seen as a desirable quality, it is not as essential as being kind. Being kind involves treating others with empathy and fairness, and also involves being kind to ourselves. The difference between being nice and being kind can also be understood through the concepts of moral goodness and moral worth in stoic philosophy. While being nice involves performing actions that align with virtues, being kind involves developing a virtuous character which would drive you towards virtuous actions. In order to live a good life, stoic philosophers emphasized the importance of cultivating virtues in both our actions and our character which is essential for finding happiness and fulfillment.
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