March 24, 2009

To hell with niceness

Kenneth Minogue:
Many social conditions have been identified as part of the change, but behind most of them, I suggest, is a massive change in our moral sentiments: notably, a rise in the currency of politicised compassion. This is a sentiment so much part of the air we breathe that it does not even have a name of its own..........."Nice" and "nasty" began to surface out of the deeper waters of moral thought and sentiment to become actual tokens of political discussion, so we may for convenience call this whole tendency by the unlikely name of "the niceness movement". In these terms, the supreme moral virtue is compassion.

This sentiment is not, of course, the niceness and decency that we rightly admire when individuals respond helpfully to others. It is a politicised virtue, which means that it is focused not on real individuals but on some current image of a whole category of people. Correspondingly, it invokes hostility towards those believed to have caused the pain and misery of others. Public discussion thus turns into melodrama. A very powerful version of this doctrinal compassion maps the distinction of oppressor and oppressed on to almost any social or international situation, and this mapping automatically directs our sympathies. Further, our sympathy for the oppressed is a demonstration to ourselves of our own benevolence. The fact is, of course, that political exponents of niceness may or may not be personally generous and benevolent. Doctrine is not character.

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