Thursday, November 27, 2014


By now the psychologists have figured out what the ethicists have always known. Gratitude is good for you. Their studies have shown that those who express gratitude, frequently and fully are rewarded with better mental health.

And, you don’t even have to feel it spontaneously. If a psychologist tells you to write down things for which you should feel grateful, you will feel better and function better… even though the idea did not pop into your mind all by itself.

Some believe that gratitude is an emotion or a value. This is slightly off the point. Gratitude only exists in the practice.

Gratitude exists when you send a thank you note. If you don’t feel grateful and still send a note, you are expressing gratitude. In principle, you will feel it after the fact. If, however, you feel grateful and forget to send the note you are an ingrate.

That is why we all participate in our national ritual, Thanksgiving dinner…  actively giving thanks for all that we have received. 

Gratitude is ultimately a social practice. It constitutes human beings as social beings.

We connect with other people when we accept that they have done us a kindness, done for us something that we could not have done on our own.

Gratitude is part of a transaction. It is part of an exchange. It is part of gift-giving. It connects us to other human beings, not so much because we feel connected but because our behavior connects us.

Surely, human beings who are grateful to others are less full of themselves. They are more humble, less isolated, more connected.

And yet, Emma Green explains, gratitude can also be a transaction between mere mortals and divine beings. We are all grateful to our parents. No one has a problem with the concept. And yet, all human communities from time immemorial have developed rituals to show gratitude to forces beyond the merely human.

Green explains:

Religions from Christianity to Hinduism to Wicca all emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. This is because they rely on the premise of an other, some sort of non-human being that has some sort of control or influence in the world who you can thank for the world and the good things in it.

This means that psychologists, especially those who are committed atheists have something of a problem when they try to explain all levels of gratitude.

Green asked psychologist Robert Emmons. He responded:

We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. ...

Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.

Obviously, we do not give birth to ourselves. We did nothing to have the parents we have, the home we were brought up in, or the talents that we may or may not spend our lives developing.

Feeling gratitude for our parents means expressing filial piety. Feeling gratitude for our talents means actualizing their potential.

Gratitude involves moral agency.

We are morally obligated to thank those who have done us favors. We are also morally obligated to return the favors.

And we have a duty to develop the potential we have been given. We might choose not to develop our talents, but then we are acting ungrateful.

When someone does a good deed, when he does something good for you, he is doing something that he was not obligated to do. Since gift-giving involves free will, it produces the risk that it will not be received or reciprocated.

If you offer someone a gift and do not receive an expression of gratitude your relationship with that person has become one of exploitation.

But, why be thankful to God?

Even if you earned the income that bought the Thanksgiving dinner, you did not create the natural process that allows food to grow. You or someone might know how to make use of that process, but the process itself was not created by a human being. Most likely you did not dream up the culinary actions whereby raw food is going to be cooked.

Expressing gratitude means that we understand that we did not do it on our own, but it also means that we have a responsibility, a moral responsibility to make use of nature responsibly. If we do not, it will stop providing us nourishment.

Those who do not believe in higher powers will assert that these natural processes just happened. We do not owe anyone anything.

In the hands of atheist governments, especially the Communist variety, a refusal to respect the natural order, a will to impose certain ideas on it has produced mass starvation.

Of course, if it’s all just a natural process, then apparently we do not owe it anything. You cannot derive moral rules from a natural process. When we ascribe what psychologists correctly call “agency” to the natural world—say that some Being has created it—we are producing conditions where we can act as moral beings by entering into an exchange with with a metaphysical source.

Green explains how one psychologist defines it:

By "agency," McCullough means something along the lines of "a force that can act in the world and cause events to happen." In crude sociological terms, people give thanks to the forces that act in the universe—God, or god, or gods—as a bid for cosmic benevolence, whether that means making it rain or preserving a loved one's health or bringing a baby into the world. But these thanks are also an implicit metaphysical claim: Humans owe their existence, their longevity, and perhaps even their daily fortunes to a being beyond ourselves.

If we owe our existence to a being that has agency, then we too are beings with agency. We are morally obligated to behave in a certain way, but we are not forced to do so.

Similarly, the universe is as it is. Science can tell us how it is.

And yet, it need not be as it is. It need not be orderly and it need not be intelligible. Strangely, it need not even be moral.

On this day we keep in mind that the universe need not support human life. It need not feed us. It need not provide the conditions under which we can thrive and prosper.

For that we all give thanks.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Beautiful piece, Stuart. It acknowledges what lies beyond, and that we are not self-reliant. You're actually putting on a grand demonstration of Stage 3 thinking (taking a step beyond Thomas Sowell's concept if Stage 1 & 2 thinking, from his book "The Vision of the Anointed").

Your writing has grown a lot in the past year. There is a definite metaphysics and acknowledgement of what lies beyond the sensory observation and the cause-and-effect science uses to claim its modern primacy over our lives. We've lost our respect for the spiritual, the supernatural... faith in something outside of our sclerotic view of "man as the measure of all things." Your reminding us of it causes reflection, and that leads to gratitude... or refusal, which leads to the romantic fallacy of the "self-made man."

Science cannot explain creation (or "agency"), nor does science provide a compelling explanation of human agency... more commonly called creativity. Your writing has risen to an entirely new level, recognizing the truth that nothing is alone, and that ideas have consequences, and that words mean things.

So thank you for your contributions to our conversations and growth. Your courage as the creator of this blog gives us all space for exchange. I am grateful to you, sir. God bless you and your family this Thanksgiving.

n.n said...

From conception... Thank you, mom. Thank you, dad. I survived planned parenthood and thrive after birth because you care.

Now to manage and help others manage the chaos and discover the significance of the semi-stable order that is reality.

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD:

Science describes consciousness and freewill as an emergent phenomenon. Unfortunately, science is incapable of distinguishing between its cause and effect, origin and expression.

The accuracy of human perception is inversely proportionate to the product of time and space offsets from an established reference. This is why the scientific domain is necessarily and expressly (e.g. scientific method, deduction) constrained in time and space. Ideally, science is limited to utilitarian purposes in order to prevent conflation and corruption of science and other philosophies.

Oh, and science is not political. It requires a consensus of evidence, not opinion. The latter has been abused by theists and atheists alike for secular purposes, typically to create leverage.

Webutante said...

Stuart, this is a wonderful post. I would even go so far to say that a lack of gratitude to God and whatever our lot in life is---even with all its trials and tribuations---becomes a form of mental illness over time.

Thank you for this and so many thought-provoking posts this year!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...


Agreed. Excellent clarification.
Happy Thanksgiving.

n.n said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD:

The beginning of human evolution from conception or that the scientific domain excludes what many believe it encompasses? The former is critical. The latter is subject to abuse.

Enjoy thanks giving and Thanksgiving Day with family and friends, and everyone nice.

Ares Olympus said...

re: We are morally obligated to thank those who have done us favors. We are also morally obligated to return the favors.

I agree with everything in this post, and as usual it makes me wonder if there was something left out.

For me what was left out is the issue of guilt. I mean the word "obligation" itself contains something complicated.

The simplest case is to imagine the young attractive women who finds herself regularly receiving gifts from men, and she can try to accept those gifts as graciously as she likes, and she can feel innocent, and believe she is receiving this attention because she's someone special and deserves it, because of her charming personality and kind temperament perhaps?

But after offering her thanks, she has to consider her moral obligation for reciprication. She has to decide whether her royal presence itself is sufficient reciprication, or if her obligations go further.

And the same dilemmas occur with employment. If you pay me a salary, then I'm obligated to earn my keep for that salary, but to one person that might mean the letter of the agreement, and you go home at 5pm every day no matter what's left undone, or if you are obligated to stay until your work is done, if it affects others who need it done now.

And equally, you might imagine after being employed (or married) to a corrupt company or person, and you find the benefits for which you feel your due gratitude, and offer your due obligations for, are not as simple as you want.

I actually just watched "The Firm" on NetFlix recently, and Tom Cruise found himself being swept off his feet to be hired by a special law firm, but only later discovers the hidden obligations behind the generous gifts, including the dramatic reality two pervious lawyers who tried to leave were murdered, but we don't need to go that far for problems.

So what a person learns after a while is gratitude isn't enough, and our moral obligation isn't just to recipricate, but to understand in an eyes-wide-open way what sort of reciprication is expected.

re: When someone does a good deed, when he does something good for you, he is doing something that he was not obligated to do. Since gift-giving involves free will, it produces the risk that it will not be received or reciprocated.

So all that makes the above somewhat murkier. Once you start questioning the motives of a "good deed", you're going into something you can't directly know. There is a real "risk that it will not be reciprocated", but if you believe a gift REQUIRES reciprication, then it isn't really a gift, but a bribe, or "incentive" if you're an economist.

So I can see there are two questions:
(1) Should I accept this gift without question, while not knowing clearly what might expected in return?
(2) If nothing specific seems to be required in return, what do I have to give that would feel good to give?

It looks like pride is involved in both questions.

And as a giver, you have to consider the same questions, if you know the receiver has a pride in her autonomy, then even if you REQUIRE nothing in return, you should consider some symbolic obligation in return that will allow them to accept it without fear.

Pride is tricky, and I think of my dad. He declared bankrupsy at age 70, and he had credit card debt that was eating over half of his social security, just making minimum payments, and much of the debt had been accumulated from more than 15 years earlier when he was laid off from work.

My dad was encouraged by a friend in 2005 to declare bankruptsy just before they changed the law. The friend convinced him to rationalize that he had long paid all of the original principle, and what was left was due to exploitive interest charges.

He probably didn't fully believe it, but he did feel gratitude for that long burden to be lifted. I only heard about this from the common friend, since he had too much pride to want everyone to know of his shameful failure of duty.

Ares Olympus said...

re: But, why be thankful to God?

The second part of the post is equally interesting, the questions of divine gifts, those we can't even identify a clear benefactor.

Like for instance, fossil fuels have allowed humanity to grow from perhaps 500 million before the industrial revolution to over 7 billion people now, gaining our last 500 million people only in the last 6 years.

So we can feel gratitude to God for leaving us such an inheritence, but what obligations are we accepting as we burn this one-time resource? And we're leaving future generations with more mouths to feed, and less one-time resources to power future civilization.

So this is sort of like the attractive young women of my last reply, all 7.2 billion of us are receiving benefits, even if unequally, but for many of us, beyond the dreams of kings of times past.

How can we possibly be worthy of such gifts? And how do those of us who are closer to the top of the gifts justify our temporary ascendance?

But because we don't really know if we can run our social systems without fossil fuels, we have to assume the costs would be too high to find out, and the only "good deed" we can do for future generations, is find new one-time carbon fuels that can justify our high rate of consumption now.

So I'm completely willing to consider God created those fossilized carbon deposits as gifts to us, and all the million years of plants who died and were submerged under swamps, and compressed, and heated, into our gift. Its a good picture, rather than just feeling guilty for blowing through our inheritence at the maximum possible rate.

Guilt won't help save us. We need our greatest minds of 7 billion people to help us pass through the boom cycle without terror that the misery that followed in a bust that will follow in our lifetimes won't be our resposibility.

So I can bicycle, reduce, reused, recycle, and even have no children myself, seeing plenty around, and I can do all these "sacrifices" in my show of gratitude, to not waste what I've given, but I know its still not enough. Guilt remains that I'm a part of a system that will consume everything and reduce the diversity of the earth.

Perhaps social conservatives don't have to have such guilt because they have a deeper belief in God, that everything is happening as it should, and if we happen to diminish life on earth, its because its in our sinful nature, and a better world will follow for the faithful, so they can participate in madness without carrying any responsibility, just like the attractive young woman receiving gifts because she's special, and her charm and kindness justifies it all.

So for me the question isn't "why be thankful to God" but HOW!

Ares Olympus said...

re: Since gift-giving involves free will, it produces the risk that it will not be received or reciprocated.

I've been thinking more about the need for free will, and it reminded me of some lines from Kipling's poem If:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

I'm not sure how this is connected to gratitude, but if nothing else, its a sort of stardard bearer of what gratitude might look like.

A person in gratitude does not whine or blame, or complain, and does not require the world conform to his wishes.

And it also reminds me of Schumacher's Tasks of Man:
Schumacher says that the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1.Learn from society and tradition.
2.Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3.Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

Clearly gratitude is a great virtue in the first task, respecting existing order, and working within the social system as it exists.

But when you carry that gratitude alone, it perhaps contains too much deference, and you can end up participating in something you know is a lie, with gratitude alone telling you to stay, while not mentioning you're only staying because you happen to be greatly benefiting personally. So the second task of man require we use our autonomy in our gratitude, and learning to say no to what makes you dependent upon other people's dishonestly.

And you could consider real gratitude only exists in the third task of man, where you have the freedom to do right for its own sake, rather than your own benefit.

So this task might be somewhat an artifact of temporary privilege, that is you could say "God's grace", a place you partially earned by your ownn effort and courage, but not somethig that was ever guaranteed to you, so you can imagine an unseen source.

So its sort of like moving from explicit dependency to autonomy and back into now implicit dependency, knowing what you have is temporary, and must be spent well. said...

A brilliant, beautiful and profound treatment of gratitude. So grateful for courageous thinkers like you who are not seduced by a need to diminish humanity by conformity.

I hope your audience widens, you have pearls of wisdom for all of us.