Nov 24, 2016

Reflections Upon Gratitude

There's a marked tendency to talk a lot about "gratitude" these days.  In fact, springboarding off an oft-quoted passage from Cicero's speech For Plancius - "gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of them" - (and then never engaging with Cicero's thought again after that) there's even quite a lot of buzz about gratitude in terms of virtue ethics, or at least what we might call "virtue-lite morality."  There's also a rising and somewhat paradoxical tendency to focus on the positive effects of gratitude on the life, the attitude, even the physical health of the grateful person.

I wonder myself at times whether we really ought to include "gratitude" among the virtues, or whether -  as I've argued elsewhere about forgiveness - we ought instead better regard it as something connected with and flowing from virtues, but not actually a virtue in its own right.  That's a topic on which I admittedly need to do more thinking.  But, one thing I have been reflecting upon quite a bit lately, is what gratitude ought to look like.  Or, you might say, how far it ought to extend in attitude and action, if it is really to be gratitude.

Is Gratitude Primarily A Feeling?

I think that for many people, what they mean by "gratitude" tends to be what we can call "feeling grateful," or in some cases even "imagining oneself as feeling grateful."  That's understandable, since some sort of affective, emotionally resonating response often does form a component to being grateful or expressing gratitude.

(As a side-note I would expect that in some cases, there's some confusion between simply feeling relieved, being pleasantly surprised, satisfaction at getting what one desires, and actually feeling a sense of gratitude towards someone, a benefactor or reliever, for example. We needn't worry too much about that here, but the differences between these affects would be an interesting further topic to explore.)

If gratitude is indeed to be a virtue, some sort of positive character trait, acquired through habituation and choices (among other things), then would it make sense to reduce it to simply a feeling?  If you take an Aristotelian point of view, then it would make sense to say Yes, at least at first. After all, Aristotle does make it very clear that virtues and vices are concerned not only with actions but also with passions (i.e. with desires, feelings, emotional responses).  So. . . why not a virtue just bearing upon an emotion or feeling?  After all, doesn't he do precisely that with good-temper (praotes, in Greek), which bears upon the feeling of anger?

Well. . . that is certainly true. . .  but that virtue also does bear on what we do with anger, how we act or don't act, what we choose.   So that line of analogous reasoning seems less and less promising the more we explore it.

There's also another consideration that for me stems from thinking about gratitude. Inevitably, I end up recalling great moral theorist, W.D. Ross - someone who I usually teach in terms of Deontological moral theory (others like better to see him as an "Intuitionist"), but who did know and grapple with Virtue Ethics, particularly Aristotle's version (if you're a reader of Aristotle, his name might be familiar, since he was one important 20th-century translators of Aristotle's works).

Ross includes gratitude as one of the seven prima facie duties he identifies in The Right and the Good, and what he has to say about it is quite interesting.  He stresses that, as far as moral rightness or duty goes,  it doesn't matter at all how we feel.  Of course, it is indeed better, i.e. more good, that we feel a sense or emotion of gratitude towards those that provide us with benefits, who help or assist us, who do us a good turn (even if they themselves do that good to us out of motivations of duty on their own part).

We don't need to entirely agree with Ross' account in order to see that when we're thinking about gratitude, it does seem it can just be a feeling.  There has to be some component or dimension of action involved.

Is Expressing Gratitude in Words Enough?

If gratitude does involve some kind of action - perhaps we might even lower the bar a bit and say that it could be expressed solely in attitude - it's quite natural to think of the verbal act of thanking someone as the prototypical expression of gratitude.  I'm of a divided mind about this myself, for in one sense, that's completely right.  Thanking someone - a performative act with language, that is, an action that does what it expresses, thanks someone - would seem to be one of the most common means of expressing gratitude.

In many situations, simply saying "Thanks!" can be all the acknowledgement required (displaying one's gratitude to another who has held a door open for one, for example).  There are many situations, particularly those in which the people involved exist in longer-term matrices of relations with each other, where thanking a person, on its own, simply does not cut it.  It is great accompanying some other actions, like the proverbial icing on the cake. That is, thanking is not much good without the underlying matter (the cake) being there, but is something excellent and makes some contribution of its own, when the cake is there to provide a foundation.

Unless someone is really into being thanked - it's not unimaginable, after all, that a person might have such a hobby or even obsession! - that act of saying "Thank you" to them does not itself confer a benefit in any real, substantive sense.  That's precisely why when we've done something good for someone - perhaps out of some sense of duty, perhaps motivated by care, perhaps entirely gratuitously, perhaps flowing from our character - in certain cases, if their response is to simply accept it, thank us, and then do nothing on their own end, we feel taken advantage of, disappointed, even upset with them.  If they pawn us off with a mere verbal expression - which costs them nothing from their own resources, and is extremely simple to say, write, or text - we sense that they're not keeping up their own end . . .  of something.

Now, why should that be the case?  Well, gratitude is in some fairly common and typical cases part of something else - Reciprocity.  The cases where a simple "Thanks" can suffice are perhaps not the really paradigmatic ones through which we ought to understand gratitude.  Within the fabric weaving together the relationships that are more central, deeper, longer lasting - sometimes more fulfilling, but sometimes also more galling and frustrating! - in our lives, there are typically favors, benefits, thoughtfulnesses, cares and concerns, and fulfillments of duties not only going back and forth between the parties, but also punctuating the ongoing flow of time together.

While in a person's life, there may be many more occasions for brief encounters that only demand, and can be successfully brought to a mutually satisfactory close, by quick verbal expressions of gratitude, the preponderance of mere numerical quantity should not delude us into thinking that these occasions for gratitude, and the expressions adequate to them, are what we ought to take as our norm.  A single long-term relationship -- which requires and imposes its own, correspondingly more complex, substantive modes of expressing gratitude - can outweigh literally thousands of more superficial encounters.  So, perhaps, that is where the real norm for gratitude ought to be sought - or at the very least a second kind of norm differing from and equally important as the first.

Gratitude and Ingratitude in Relationships

If the reflections above make reasonably good sense, an integral feature of many longer-term, important relationships is some expectation of reciprocity.  That requires a bit of discussion, though I don't want to try to define it or entirely flesh it out here.  Suffice it to say that reciprocity involves a return in kind of good acts or services from one person to another.  This is not simply a quid pro quo, though, or a do ut des (I give in order that you should give), where the focus is primarily on what one is going to get, rather than on what one does or gives to the other.  Reciprocity also is something that congeals into a reliable shape over the course of time, not just in one set of exchanges.

I would like to say that, within the structures of many important relationships - take a marriage for a prime example - gratitude is going to take determinate form through the members of the relationship doing good or pleasing acts, consistently, over time, for the other members.  For any of these acts, it could be considered on its own as doing something good for the other, on one's own initiative. But the act can also be rightly regarded as a response to previous (or even to anticipated) similarly good acts on the part of the other person.  Considered in that second way, such acts are embodiments of reciprocity, and expressions of gratitude.

Notice that the person need not necessarily do such acts with some explicitly formed conscious intention in every case like "I want to do something to express my gratitude to so-and-so".  Nor does that person need to be feeling the emotion of gratitude on each occasion.  If you stopped them, and asked:  "Why are you doing that for them/" - or better "Why are you putting yourself out doing something like that for them?" - then you might get a response that does explicitly refer to being grateful or showing gratitude to the other.

This raises another interesting point as well -- in relationships there are two common ways that people often get on the wrong footing with each other with respect to gratitude.  They're in a way mistakes that turn out to be mirror images of other other.  And, they both involve ways in which a person portrays him or herself as grateful, but appears to the other as an ingrate.
  • Some people, focusing on the actions by which they tangibly and substantively display their gratitude towards the other, for the good the other does for them, dispense with expressing their gratitude verbally to the other.  They're not an ingrate, but might well appear so to the other.
  • Other people instead acknowledge their gratitude verbally, thanking the other person for e.g. "the nice things you do," but then view that as the end of the demands genuine gratitude imposes.  So, they don't do anything substantive to otherwise express that gratitude, and if this is pointed out, they may in fact bristle -- for after all, didn't they already display whatever gratitude was due or appropriate precisely by saying "Thanks"?  Such people think they're grateful, but are at best only partially or imperfectly so.
To bring this to a close here, I'd like to put an idea on the table - one that might require another blog entry to fully flesh it out - particularly in working out what any sort of virtue of gratitude might really look like or entail.   I think that to be "grateful" in its full sense, within the matrix of a relationship, involves not only attention to reciprocating the good another does towards oneself, but something else going beyond that.  I envision this along the lines of actively working to find and provide goods that are more and more particularly suited to that other person.  To me, that sort of thoughtfulness and attentiveness betoken a particularly well-developed and attractive form gratitude can adopt.