Yesterday news broke that Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor was charged with rape and patronizing a prostitute. This follows the accusation about a month ago that Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a college student in Georgia earlier this year. In both cases, people who knew the men expressed shock and disbelief that these men would have done such heinous acts. Like many such high-profile cases, people could not see how men they perceived as “nice” could also act in such a manner.
The problem is that too many people today equate being “nice” with being good. Being nice is part of being good, but the two terms are not equivalent. Niceness, or politeness, is simply one of the virtues that entail being a good person. It is quite possible to be polite to others and yet be a monster. In fact, many monsters throughout history have used politeness to accomplish their evil designs.
Each of the virtues involve putting the good of others before one’s own desires. This is true of politeness; instead of just dominating interactions with others to obtain your own needs, being polite forces you to put the other person’s needs ahead of your own. But it is quite possible to be selfless when it comes to social interactions in public and still be quite selfish in other situations, especially those that occur in private. Each person has his own strengths and weaknesses in the moral life, and just because a person might be unfailingly polite does not mean that he is also virtuous in other areas. For example, a person might have been raised with strict guidelines for being polite in social situations and thus is able to be polite quite easily, but he might also be a compulsive liar or adulterer. Furthermore, oftentimes people will behave in public much differently than they behave in private – not for virtuous reasons, but because they want to avoid shame.
The key to a truly virtuous life – to being truly “good” – is making all your actions selfless, even those no one else sees. Each one of us will struggle with a few particular areas and find other areas of the moral life quite easy. But we need to remember that being “nice” does not mean we have mastered the moral life. This is true not just for public figures, but for ourselves as well.