The Philosophical Lens (November 2018): Meaning of Gratitude and Giving Thanks

the meaning of gratitude and giving thanks

With it being Thanksgiving in the States, I found myself contemplating the nature of giving thanks and expressing gratitude in general. It turns out that there’s a rich literature on gratitude in philosophy that spans across the subject’s entire history with both ancient and modern philosophers discussing the concept. Gratitude is also relevant to psychology, and of course, many people’s understanding of religion and spirituality.

What is gratitude?

Such a question might seem rather innocuous, but, as with many initial questions prompting philosophical inquiry, it’s deceptively complicated. The most obvious and defining aspect of gratitude is that it necessarily includes a positive aspect. Usually, this positive aspect is some perceived good or benefit that an individual experiences as a beneficiary of actions or circumstances beyond their control. People express gratitude for a wide range of things, including the actions of others (i.e. gestures of support from total strangers), or for fortunate circumstances that transpire independent of human intentions and activity – like good weather on the day of a major event like a wedding or sporting competition.

Grateful to whom/Grateful for what?

While this is a good working definition for gratitude, it already introduces some conceptual ambiguity. Broadly defining gratitude as a sort of gratefulness for benefits outside of one’s control can make the term not just synonymous with other words like fortune or favor, but completely indistinguishable from them. Some philosophers, however, have recently pointed out that there are times where our use of the term goes beyond a mere appreciation of a fortunate turn of events. They point to the distinction between gratitude statements using “to” and gratitude statements using “for” or “that.”

Consider the following sentences:

1) I am grateful to the driver who gave my stalled vehicle a start with her jumper cables.

2) I am grateful for the views of beautiful seaside sunsets that my apartment allows me to have.

The first sentence illustrates gratitude to a particular person, whereas the second is merely a reflection on some positive state of affairs. Philosophers emphasize this distinction by referring to statements like the first sentence as “prepositional gratitude,” as these statements function as prepositions illustrating a relationship between an individual and the person whose actions benefited them. These types of statements are also sometimes referred to as “targeted” or “interpersonal” gratitude, as they define a type of appreciation to persons as a result of their actions. Philosophers contrast prepositional gratitude with propositional gratitude, which are statements expressing gratitude about one’s personal situation or a state of affairs which they find themselves subject to.

Modern philosophers favor discussing prepositional gratitude as it has attributes that make it unique from basic appreciation or gladness, unlike propositional gratitude. The interpersonal aspect implies both a directedness and intentionality for one’s positive emotions, as well as a set of related desires, like a feeling of obligation, as well as feelings of goodwill to those to make us feel gratitude. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t philosophical accounts of propositional gratitude, although some might consider non-(inter)personal accounts of gratitude to be inappropriate outside of theism. That is to say, assuming good fortune isn’t the result of a deity, the sentiment might again be seen as mere gladness, as there is no agent or actor to which one’s feelings are directed (although, in contrast, some philosophers have made arguments for a general non-directed “existential gratitude”).

The appropriateness of gratitude

One of the big questions surrounding the nature of gratitude is the conditions under which it can be considered an appropriate emotion. Answering this question first requires us to distinguish between interpersonal gratitude and its non-directed counterpart, as the question of appropriateness might differ between them.

For interpersonal gratitude, there’s the matter of whether or not gratitude exists in relation to an action. For example, are there times which one should be grateful to someone abstaining from some action, rather than actively doing something for the beneficiary? Moreover, is it necessary for the beneficial (in)action to be intentional or deliberate, or can involuntary or unintentional actions count? Also, is gratitude called for if a benefactor has other motives besides benefiting the beneficiary? What if the benefactor intends to help the beneficiary but fails to do so? Is their intention alone worthy of gratitude?

Additional criteria, like questions about the appropriateness of gratitude towards obligatory actions or actions that are effortless for the benefactor, exist too. In effect, is there some quality required before an action becomes worthy of gratitude? We can also wonder whether or not entities like states or organizations fall under this analysis of gratitude.

The demands of gratitude and giving thanks

Assuming that gratitude is an appropriate response to a benefactor’s actions and that these actions truly warrant such a response, is the presence of gratitude indicative of some deeper moral obligation? Our everyday use of the term suggests that this is the case, with the notion of debts of gratitude being a common metaphor. Philosophers, though, are to some extent skeptical of this colloquial use or understanding of gratitude as a debt. Unlike debt, a benefactor’s good deed doesn’t function as a promissory note which is redeemed on some agreed upon date. Similar to how one isn’t obligated to laugh at a joke, a beneficiary is only “compelled” to experience or act on gratitude when the circumstances – both mentally and circumstantially – allow for them to respond with a favor in kind. Additionally, the reciprocation of a gratitude-worthy act isn’t a like-kind exchange. The response of the beneficiary might not be of a similar magnitude to the action which benefited them, and the benefactor doesn’t get to unilaterally decide what type of action serves as a satisfactory response to their gracious action.

Philosophers do seem to think that some aspects of an appropriate response are more easily argued for as obligations than others. For example, the act of thanking a benefactor seems obligatory, if only as a social norm. The extent to which the demands of this particular social obligation hold are another question entirely, though, with it not being clear if an expression of thanks must be 100% sincere. It could be the case that a person’s temperament, as well as their beliefs, don’t fall directly under conscious control, in which case sincerity might not be an obligation (though it could be something to strive for when giving thanks).

One of the most scathing critiques of the gratitude as debt metaphor comes from the professor Jeremy David Engels whose recent book, The Art of Gratitude, attempts to provide a genealogy for this particular understanding of gratitude, as well as its limitations and harms. The crux of his work is that gratitude as debt misunderstands the nature of our obligations to people, and reduces our relationships to transactions. This logic, when taken to its extreme, impoverishes us, as gratitude moves away from an appreciation of people and relationships to a cost-benefit analysis that, at times, can seem as corrosive and burdensome as financial debt.  Engels thinks that this problem scales to the level of the collective, where gratitude as debt obscures us from seeing our role as democratic citizens seeking to address issues of collective action.

Gratitude is way too big to explore in a single post. Hopefully, in posts down the line, we can look deeper into its history and the complexities of its various dimensions.