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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Being Nice vs. Being Kind

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Smile

Are they the same?

Kelly Shi

What is the difference between being nice and being kind? At first glance, it is hard to tell.  We seem to use “nice” and “kind” interchangeably when describing people. A “nice person” holds the door for others, and so does a “kind person”; both behave in ways that demonstrate consideration for others. So are “nice” and “kind” just synonyms for each other?

Not exactly, according to dictionary.com. “Nice” is defined as “pleasing; agreeable; delightful”, while “kind” is defined as “having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence.” This difference seem to explain why we use “nice” but not “kind” to describe things besides people and the way they treat each other. For example, “nice shirt” is understood as a compliment (albeit a vague one), but “kind shirt” is a nonsensical phrase. It seems that while “nice” and “kind” carry positive connotations, only the latter indicates an ethical significance. 

Does that mean that “kind” is merely a subset of “nice” that applies to ethical matters? Since “nice” describes moral things that are pleasing, as well as nonmoral things that are pleasing, perhaps “kind” simply refers to the first group of nice things. While this interpretation is appealing in its simplicity, it might be that things can be nice without being kind, and vice versa. The distinguishing factor seems to lie in the motivation of a person or act. 

For example, consider again how holding the door for others can be described as either “nice” or “kind”.  If the underlying motivation is to create a favorable impression for the purpose of asking for a favor later, then the action can be considered nice due to its pleasing effect, but not kind without a sense of benevolence. Conversely, if the motivation is to spare the other person from extra effort or inconvenience, then the action can be considered kind, as well as nice if it pleases the other person. After all, pleasing others and benevolence do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

It seems that they do not have to be mutually inclusive, either. Perhaps not every action coming from a place of benevolence has a pleasing effect. For example, imagine that you have to break some bad news to a good friend of yours. While the news is almost guaranteed to displease your friend, you know that the information will help them in the long run. In such a situation, breaking the news to your friend can be considered a kind action, but not necessarily a nice one. 

What do you think? What marks the difference being nice and being kind? Can the two overlap? Share your thoughts with us below!

Kelly Shi is the Hackworth Fellow and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. 

Apr 26, 2016

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