Nov 23, 2012

A Few Reflections on Gratitude

Another Thanksgiving day has come and gone,bringing in its wake postings and platitudes, and occasionally deeper reflections and expressions of gratitude, the disposition, emotion, or attitude inextricably involved with thanks.  Thankfulness and giving thanks are important, but often overlooked, matters for ethics, a soon-or-later necessary dimension of any sustained, common, well-oriented moral life. Why do we discuss it as infrequently as we do in my field, moral theory?

I suspect for many of the same reasons it's not all that much more often discussed specifically, thematically, whether we look to other academic or professional disciplines,  or turn our gaze upon the broader spheres of ordinary activity -- we've got so much else to focus on, attend to, and talk about together.  Time runs out, seemingly more quickly each passing year -- and so paradoxically, we have to cut out and dedicate a portion of that ever-scarcer resource in order to "make the time" for giving thanks, let alone thinking about, meditating upon, pondering gratitude.  And yet, if we pay attention, it is not too difficult to discover, even stumble across philosopher and theologians who did examine and analyze this distinctively human attitude, affect, and activity.

Three Ways to Think About Thankfulness

Thankfulness, giving thanks, gratitude. . .  how should we think about these?  What are they?  Is there some common core, an essence of gratefulness?  Is there one single, identifiable aspect which unites the multiple experiences, ideas, attempts at, successes in and failures with thanks?  Or is this more likely one of those moral concepts and values -- as Plato indicated and as Aristotle explained -- that we work with, act upon, feel and think about, but which we also tend to find ourselves in puzzles with ourselves and arguments with others once we try to pin down its definition, and when concrete cases calling for decisions and judgements are placed before us?

I would suggest that gratitude is precisely that sort of rich, necessarily ambiguous, "thick" moral notion -- and I'd add that it's always been such and always will, despite the efforts of those who would much rather make thankfulness into something more easily manageable by "flattening out" the concept.  Such ambiguity, of course, does not mean that everything is thereby and therefore entirely up for grabs, that we've got no workable conception of thanks, that one notion or evaluation is equally good -- and thus just as inadequate -- as any other.  No, it exerts and operates with the type of ambiguity involved in closely analogical terms, as someone like Aristotle would tell us.

One important set of distinctions to make disentangles three different though closely related meanings of gratitude -- let's call them, just to keep matters simple:  Act, Feeling, and Disposition.  One might view gratitude, thankfulness, giving thanks -- however you like to put this basic human phenomena into words -- principally along any one of these three lines, though there is a difference in how easily they can be extricated from each other.

It is easy -- and many people do in fact view matters along such lines -- to interpret gratitude as solely a matter of action, doing the right sorts of things, perhaps not doing other things.  One can exhibit gratitude in action without necessarily feeling anything, let alone the gratitude under question reflecting a established (or perhaps in-process-of-developing) disposition of one's character.  One might also focus exclusively on the feeling, the affect, the emotional state or orientation of the person who is supposed to be thankful -- that too could exist in the absence of action, let alone a disposition, characteristic of gratitude, and so some attend only to that sense, that understanding of thanks.  That would not be the case, however, with gratitude as a disposition. It hardly makes sense to speak of a disposition in moral matters that would not become externalized, embodied, en-acted -- in ergon as Aristotle would say -- through action and passion.

Gratitude in Action:  Take 1 with Thomas Hobbes

From a number of moral perspectives, actually displaying gratitude through action of some sort is an irreplaceable part of being thankful.  For some it is the only measure that really matters, at least in certain respects.  Thomas Hobbes -- who I suspect nobody can accuse of being too sentimental or emotionally-focused a moral theorist! -- touched on gratitude briefly in his master-work Leviathan, making gratefulness one of his many "laws of nature":

A justice depends on antecedent covenant, so does gratitude depend of antecedent grace, that is to say antecedent free-gift.  And this is the fourth law of nature, which may be conceived in this form:  that a man who receives benefit from another of mere grace, endeavor that he which giveth it, have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will.  [Hobbes' 17th century lingo put into modern language by me here]
Gratitude supplies a kind of glue which holds delicate human affairs, relationships, and political communities together, for Hobbes:
For no man gives, but with intention of good to himself , because gift is voluntary, and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good, of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence, or trust -- nor consequently of mutual help, nor of reconciliation of one man to another. . . . The breach of this law is called ingratitude, and has to the same relation to grace, that injustice has to obligation by covenant.
The attitude and assumptions Hobbes articulates are quite telling.  While there is some place -- just how much of it is a debated issue among scholars -- for considerations of emotions and dispositions in Hobbes' moral theory, the emphasis squarely falls on what precisely one does or does not do.  Gratitude, for Hobbes, is doing something good for those who, without being obliged to do so, benefit one in some manner -- or at the very least, not giving that benefactor reason to repent of his or her good turn!

Notice as well that, as Hobbes construes it, the value of gratitude does not really reside in itself, but rather in its effects -- or in consequences of its absence -- and that these seem to have much more to do with the moral fabric of the larger society, a matrix of assumptions of and continued commitment to civilized behavior.  Gratitude is not something inherently valuable, an intrinsic good.  It barely even seems to be a good for the individuals involved, let alone for their particular relationship -- action of gratitude will produce, provide, or protect some good for the person towards whom one is being grateful -- but from a Hobbesian perspective, that is a good for that person, but the gratitude itself is good only instrumentally, because it leads to the good.

Gratitude in Action:  Take 2 with W.D. Ross

Another philosophical approach towards gratitude focusing primarily on action can be found in W.D. Ross' attempt to marry critically reexamined Kantian and Aristotelian moral theory (along with several other components), his book The Right and the Good.  He introduces his key idea of prima facie duties in chapter 2 of the work -- the main portion of his text that tends to get read, unfortunately so, since he makes other valuable contributions to moral theory in the other chapters (but that's a topic to explore in another post).  What's particularly interesting here is that among the seven prima facie duties (or rather types or classes of duties) he enumerates and analyses, we find duties of gratitude, which "rest on previous acts of other men, i.e. services done by them to me."  He tells us that:
there are special obligations. These may arise, in the first place, incidentally, from acts which were not essentially meant to create such an obligation, but which nevertheless create it. From the nature of the case such acts may be of two kinds -- the infliction of injuries on others, and the acceptance of benefits from them. It seems clear that these put us under a special obligation to other men, and that only these acts can do so incidentally. From these arise the twin duties of reparation and gratitude
It is striking how contingent the occasioning of gratitude becomes when considered in this light.  While one can say in general that one person benefiting another -- the main types of goods Ross distinguishes in The Right and the Good (the determinate ways in which one person can benefit another) are pleasure, virtue, intelligence, and justice -- produces a new duty of gratitude on the part of the benefited person towards their benefactor, such duties are not really general, but specific, concrete, generated in determinate situations.

Ross insists on a very strong distinction between the right and the good -- hence his memorable book title -- and sets duty straight on the side of right:
 For by 'fidelity' or 'gratitude' we mean, strictly, certain states of motivation; and, as I have urged, it is not our duty to have certain motives, but to do certain acts. By 'fidelity', for instance, is meant, strictly, the disposition to fulfil promises and implicit promises because we have made them. We have no general word to cover the actual fulfilment of promises and implicit promises irrespective of motive; and I use 'fidelity', loosely but perhaps conveniently, to fill this gap.
By analogy, then, it is not our duty to have a motive of gratitude, to feel grateful, let alone to develop a disposition of gratitude -- though plausibly such character development could be a matter of a different duty, i.e. self-improvement.  Our duty is to display gratitude, to whatever measure we are capable of, to act gratefully, to do the sorts of things that constitute thankfulness.

Is Gratitude as Action Enough?

If we adopted the moral perspectives of Hobbes or of Ross -- and they are quite different from each other on a number of counts -- one thing which they do both hold in common is a seeming reduction of gratitude to merely what one does, to action -- or perhaps to what one attempts, plans, chooses (since action is not always effective in bringing about what is intended by the agent).  Are these sorts of positions adequate to make sense of our moral experience, the phenomena of our common interpersonal life, of the values which we hold and act upon (and sometimes fail)?

Before exploring what is left out or missing in those perspectives, it is worth dwelling on something they do provide -- a point of emphasis that might otherwise be overlooked when we bandy all sorts of talk about "gratitude".  There is a merit to insisting on the importance of action, of effectively engaging others through behavior recognizable as expressing or embodying gratitude -- action is in fact our linkage with the world we share with others.  And, there's one very interesting aspect of gratitude as action that comes to mind for me in thinking about Thanksgiving Day.

The holiday was established -- after much longer precedent, going far further back in time than its fairly recent official inauguration -- precisely to set aside time to give thanks.  And, there was supposed to be some object of that thanks -- a recipient construed quite differently by, e.g. different presidents in their declarations (notice, for example, Jefferson's Deist terminology as a contrast to the explicitly Christian language of his immediate predecessors), but some being towards which one was directing at the very least praise, expression of thankfulness.

A problem or puzzle that bedeviled even pre-Christian cultures, in the midst of massive and well-established mechanisms of sacrifice:  what can you get, let alone, give to those who already have pretty much everything they could possibly need -- God or the gods?  What action could possibly be commensurate to the need to give thanks, gratia agere, literally to give (back) grace, to do grace to a divine benefactor?

A somewhat similar problem occurs on a smaller scale -- at least for those who make an attempt to think such matters through -- with objects, agents of good to oneself, much lower than gods -- one's community, one's parents, perhaps even one's teachers.  Is it possible to given them back precisely what they afforded one?  Clearly not -- but then can one at the very least give them gifts of gratitude equally valuable to those which they provided?  Even that may not be possible -- a predicament articulated every semester by at least some of my students, struggling to identify how they might possibly satisfy the duty of gratitude they feel themselves to owe to their own parents.

Eventually -- some sooner, some later, but typically within a matter of minutes -- they hit upon a possible recourse.  If they cannot, in their own action, ever do enough to entirely repay their parents, perhaps the deficit can be made up through beneficent actions towards, and for, a substitute -- other people.  That's, in my view, a very intelligent line of practical reasoning -- and I have to admit being suffused with a sort of gladness not distant from gratitude every time some of my students explicitly work through that set of ideas, and I see faces light up throughout the class.

So, I'll end here just by bringing that up as a relevant dimension of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day.  Deliberately telling people what one is thankful for -- that's an action, true.  One could also do something as well -- volunteering to feed the hungry at a soup kitchen, for example.  But those are far from the only modalities of action one might choose if one determined that it was centrally important that Thanksgiving Day be a holiday devoted to gratitude in action. 

This notion of gratitude as action will get fleshed out a bit more when I discuss the other two ways of understanding gratitude -- as emotion and as disposition -- in a follow-up post.  Until then, it strikes me that I ought to thank the reader who has borne with these meandering musings so far, and yet been willing to be put off for the time being. Even more, I ought to express thanks to my regular readership -- those who peruse, repost, and at times even comment upon the essays I set here in Virtue Ethics Digest

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