by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 17
November 2020
Idea
11:50

Nice guys finish last — or do they?

by Elizabeth Oldfield
President Franklin Roosevelt (L) was no saint, but always tried to take the more virtuous path

Nice guys finish last…or do they? David Bodanis thinks they don’t – or at least, in the long term, it’s more often the bad guys bringing up the rear. In his new book ‘The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean,’ the writer argues that there are two ways to succeed.

Firstly, as we’re all too familiar with: by a will to power, through division and fear. Bodanis’s extended essay on Josef Goebbels unpacks this path, though readers will think of contemporary examples.

Secondly, through fairness, exemplified by three characteristics of listening to those around you, giving generously, and defending the good (i.e. being savvy enough not to be taken for a ride). Franklin D. Roosevelt is the extended case study for this approach, not least because he and Goebbels were contemporaries.

Bodanis spells out why Goebbels’s unfairness (not to mention his inhuman indecency) eventually sowed the seeds of his downfall; for example, by driving Jewish and Polish scientists, and therefore key breakthroughs like penicillin, into the arms of the Allies. By contrast, Roosevelt’s legacy lives on to this day and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents.

Other stories of fairness-driven success in the book, from heroic pilots to debutante-turned militia leaders, show that fairness isn’t the same as niceness. Many were personally gruff or grumpy, though civil, and none were naïve. Neither were they saints, and Bodanis is careful to point out where they failed to live up the standards of fairness — like Roosevelt interning Japanese citizens during World War II.

What they share is character, borne out of repeatedly choosing the more virtuous path.

Bodanis is careful not to push too hard on the causes behind these choices. In the main, he lets the stories speak for themselves. My guess, however, is that Bodanis (perhaps reluctantly) has concluded that our great religious traditions hold at least part of the answer for living a fair life.

But here we come to a familiar conundrum, because most people in the West now don’t believe in the metaphysics underlying these traditions, or the authority of the books they rest on. If you don’t believe there is a transcendent justice, a source of fairness (who listens, gives and defends the good) behind the universe, then you need to pursue fairness and decency for its own sake.

That’s a praiseworthy, noble and difficult path. On the other hand, Bodanis implies, though never quite says, that you might have a better shot if you believe, like Roosevelt did, that all that lasts is “Faith, hope and charity…” and see them as ”constraints no mortal should dare to break”.

In an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world, it’s more important than ever that we, at the very least, bear this message in mind and keep faith in the power of fairness.

Join the discussion


  • November 21, 2020
    Von Braun was a war criminal and the the USA OSS lifted him and a number of his colleagues (ultimately well over 1,000 were taken to the USA) from Vienna after he turned up there after hightailing it from Peenemunde where forced labour was used on the V programme. He held the substantive rank of... Read more

  • November 21, 2020
    Because it would have been better if the Soviets had got hold of him? Read more

  • November 18, 2020
    "By contrast, Roosevelt’s legacy lives on to this day and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents." Only by those who are ingorant of FDR's racism, fascism, and egoism. These have been papered over by the press. In truth FDR was only good at getting the US involved in WW2.... Read more

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