The Moral Psychology of Gratitude
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The Moral Psychology of Gratitude

Robert Roberts, Daniel Telech

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eBook - ePub

The Moral Psychology of Gratitude

Robert Roberts, Daniel Telech

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Expressions of gratitude abound. Hardly a book is published that does not include in its preface or acknowledgments some variation on, “I am grateful to…for…” Indeed, most achievements come to be only through the help of others. We value the benevolence of others, and when we—or our loved ones—are the recipients of benevolence, our emotional response is often one of gratitude. But, are we bound to the requirement of ‘repaying’ our benefactors in some way? If we are, and there are—as ordinary language suggests—debts of gratitude, what kind of debts are these? Does the appropriateness of my gratitude require that my benefactor in fact intended to benefit me (in just the way she did)? Is there a difference between feeling grateful and being grateful? Is a precondition of my being grateful to another that I respect her? Do we owe a special sort of gratitude to those who have shaped us into the persons we are? What are the psychological and normative relations between gratitude the emotion, and gratitude the virtue? These are among the questions carefully addressed in The Moral Psychology of Gratitude. This volume provides readers with the state-of-the-art in research on gratitude. It does so in the form of sixteen never-before published articles on the emotion by leading voices in philosophy and the sciences of the mind.

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Part I

Reasons and Action

Chapter 1

Gratitude: Generic versus Deep

Hichem Naar

The Elusiveness of Gratitude

In this chapter, I argue that gratitude is not necessarily affective or motivating. Against a common trend in recent philosophical treatments of the notion, indeed, I argue for the introduction of an important but neglected kind of gratitude that is simply a matter of believing that one has been benefited by a benevolent benefactor. I will call this non-affective, non-motivating kind of gratitude “generic,” and the kind—taking center stage in the literature—that is affective and motivating, “deep.” After defending the distinction, I explore the connection between these kinds of gratitude.
Suppose I asked you to recall as many people as you can to whom you are grateful. How many would you be able to bring to mind? And how long would it take you? How difficult is the task? Is it easier than bringing to mind people you love, or harder? My experience is that it is much harder to bring to mind people I am grateful to. Besides a couple of obvious answers—which may not have been obvious to me until I actually tried—I find it a daunting task to come up with names of people to whom I am grateful. For one thing, many people have benefited me in the past; for another, rarely anything as deep as a state of love was formed as a result of having been benefited from them. Nonetheless, there may appear to be a fact of the matter as to whether, for any given person X, I am grateful to X for having done something for me. The problem is that it often takes some effort to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question “Whom are you grateful to, and why?”, giving the impression that, as one is thinking deeply about one’s past, one is not really grateful to the people one will ultimately cite. When you are pondering over whom you are grateful to, are you engaged in a bit of introspection, or are you, quite literally, making up your mind as to whether you are, or should be, grateful to this or that person? The fact that it takes so much effort—and what looks like genuine deliberation—to come up with names may suggest that, prior to being asked the question, you were not really grateful to the people you were hard put even to remember.
Things may look a bit less alarming when you don’t have the initial task of remembering a specific person. Suppose I ask you, for any given person X, whether there is anything for which you are grateful to X. You would probably come up with a definite answer much more easily. Since you now remember X, it is much easier for you to think of the various ways X may have contributed to your life. Perhaps X has helped you carry your furniture when you moved into your new apartment. Or perhaps X has often been there when you needed advice on relationships. Or perhaps X bought you a nice meal last weekend. In any case, provided the relevant person has already been brought to your attention, it is rather easy to remember what he may have done for you which appears to render gratitude appropriate. In such cases, one can then declare “I am grateful to X for A.” Although it might have been easier to come up with an answer to the question “Are you grateful to X?” than it is to answer the question “Whom are you grateful to?”, there remains the suspicion that one’s answer is not really revelatory of a prior state of gratitude. Indeed, if no one had asked you this question, you probably would never have given much thought to the fact that the person has benefited you. Perhaps, then, gratitude is such as to be held on the basis of effortful conscious deliberation. If true, this would imply a fairly robust form of skepticism about gratitude formed spontaneously and effortlessly, of the sort we take to be paradigmatic, the sort of gratitude we take to be revealed rather than created when reflecting on the impact other people have had on one’s life, and therefore the sort of gratitude the knowledge of which can be a matter of genuine discovery.
Perhaps, however, this sort of skepticism should not be accepted just yet. Suppose I asked you, not whether you are grateful to X for having done something or other (that you would then need to think about), but whether you are grateful to X for having done A in particular—thereby sparing you the trouble to search for ways you may have benefited from X in the past. It appears that the answer will be extremely easy to come by. Suppose you believe you were benefited by X’s action, and also believe that X’s motives were good. I can easily imagine you reply: “Sure, I’m grateful.” And this could be repeated for any agent-action pair I give you. For any such pair, it seems you will immediately know what answer to give. If you don’t believe you were benefited by a person, for instance, then you are highly likely to answer the question “Are you grateful to X for A?” with a firm “No.” By contrast, if you believe you were benefited by X, that X did something good for you, then arguably you are just as likely to give the positive answer. It appears, then, that there is a fact of the matter whether you are antecedently grateful to a person for something they have done, a fact that you are able to access if prompted in the right sort of way. Maybe you were not aware that you were grateful before being prompted, but the immediacy with which you are able to answer the question suggests that your gratitude was there all along, waiting to manifest itself.1
But what exactly was “there all along” that would require you to get all the relevant information in full view in order for the gratitude to be triggered? I don’t need to give you the name of someone in particular in order for you to tell me whom you love spontaneously and effortlessly. So why do I need to do this to have a spontaneous and effortless answer to a query about whom I am grateful to? I think this has to do, not with the fact that I may have failed to be grateful prior to being asked the question, but rather with the fact that gratitude is, in many cases, rather cheap, requiring something much less sophisticated than contemporary accounts of gratitude claim it requires. As I argue in the section “Being a Grateful Person: Gratitude Qua Virtue,” although there is a fact of the matter whether you are grateful at a particular time to a person for having benefited you, this fact is often hard to pin down precisely because it is trivial—in particular, it is a trivial consequence of having further, temporally persisting, and often dormant, mental states. Calling these mental states to mind, however, can have psychological consequences that are not trivial, which is why it may be important to attend to the various ways other people have benefited us. In particular, doing so might lead to a deeper form of gratitude of a sort associated with the affective and the motivational. In section “Deep Gratitude,” I discuss this sort of gratitude, which I call deep gratitude, to be contrasted with the generic gratitude of the sort discussed in the previous section. I argue that, in addition to the mental states involved in generic gratitude, deep gratitude involves an essentially affective-cum-motivational element, and I tackle the question of what turns a merely generically grateful person into a deeply grateful one. In the section “When Is Deep Gratitude Appropriate?” finally, I ask what might make deep gratitude appropriate over and above generic gratitude. As we will see, it is difficult to draw a principled distinction between appropriate and inappropriate instances of deep gratitude, and skepticism about conditions of appropriateness for deep gratitude is difficult to avoid.

Generic Gratitude

In presenting a previous version of this chapter to various audiences, I have had many comments, some very helpful, others a bit less so. In any case, I take myself to have benefited from the people who reacted to the chapter. Also, I’m assuming that many of these people really wanted to help me improve the paper, and that they didn’t do it for any self-interested ulterior motives, or at least not just for these reasons (McConnell, 1993). For simplicity, I’ll call the attitudes in a benefactor that appear to be presupposed by the grateful beneficiary “benevolent attitudes,” leaving it open what exactly these are.2
But am I grateful to them, now, several weeks or months after receiving the comments, comments my benefactors may not even remember? At first sight, it may appear that I am not genuinely grateful to them. For one thing, nothing in my behavior appears to suggest that I am grateful to them. To be sure, I may actually use some of the comments I received to improve the chapter. Although this might make my commentators happy, should they come to realize the impact they had on the chapter, I may do so in a way that disregards completely the origin of these comments. At least while I am writing the paper, what matters is that I improve it, and if the comments I received may help me do that, then I will use them. Otherwise, I won’t. If I don’t, however, this doesn’t mean that I am not really grateful to my commentators.
Perhaps, however, we should look at what I am disposed to feel and do with respect to my commentators. But then again, I don’t find myself experiencing anything in particular when I think about the moment I received the comments, or my commentators themselves. I might find the comments useful in and of themselves, but I might not feel anything toward the commentators who gave them. Neither am I particularly disposed to help them should they need some comments. The next time I see any of them talk, I do not think I will be particularly inclined to give a comment over and above my prior inclination to give comments whenever I find it relevant to do so. I am not, in other words, disposed to return the benefit.
To be sure, I might happen to feel differently about the various people who reacted to my chapter. I might like, or take pleasure in the company of, some more than others. I might want to keep in touch with some but not others. I might even appreciate the feedback given by some people more than I appreciate the feedback of others. And there might be commentators I actually feel, for various reasons, negatively about. And some reasons might have to do with the comments I received. Perhaps someone expressed a forceful objection to my argument, which, not knowing how to answer it, led me to form an irrational dislike of that person.
But what I happen to feel about my commentators need not be indicative of an underlying state of gratitude that I formed in response to the comments I received. I think that I am genuinely grateful to the people who reacted to my chapter, a fact whose only external sign will probably be an acknowledgment in a footnote, and that I am grateful to all these people equally. In expressing my thanks in a footnote, I take myself to be expressing the same kind of attitude to both those people I generally feel positively about and those people I generally feel negatively about. And, assuming talk of “strength” is appropriate here, such attitude may have the same strength in both cases, regardless of what I happen to independently feel. In addition, the attitude expressed need not lead me to be motivated one way or another to benefit my commentators.3
At this stage, one might object that I am not really grateful to my commentators if I am not disposed to benefit them in return if the occasion presents itself or do not feel a certain way with respect to them (e.g., McConnell, 1993). If this is right, then my acknowledgment would not be an expression of gratitude. At best, the objection goes, this would simply be compliance with a norm of etiquette.4 Just as saying “Thanks” when someone is holding the door for us does not imply that I am grateful to that person for doing so, acknowledging the help of someone in a footnote need not indicate any attitude of gratitude toward her. In doing so, I may just be doing what’s conventionally expected of me, and nothing more than that, especially if I am not disposed to return a benefit or to feel in a certain way in response to having been benefited.
Suppose it is true that my “thanks” in response to someone holding the door is not a genuine expression of gratitude, but rather mere compliance with a norm of etiquette. Does my thanking my commentators have the same structure such that it is plausible that I am not expressing any sort of gratitude in this case either? I think that there are at least two differences between the two cases that would explain why I should be grateful to my commentators but not grateful to the person who holds the door for me. First, there appears to be a social norm such that, if you are entering a building and someone is not too far behind you, then you should hold the door for them. It is therefore expected that we hold doors for others when this condition obtains. In fact, it is often because of our perception of this expectation that we hold doors, and not because we want to benefit the person behind us. By contrast, giving a comment at a conference is not expected in this way. There is no social norm enjoining us to give a comment when attending a talk, especially when the number of people is large enough so that not everyone is going to have a chance to give a comment anyway. In giving a comment at a conference, to a certain extent one thereby goes out of one’s way in a way that someone holding a door for us doesn’t.5 There are, therefore, differences in what motivates the two actions that would explain why I should be grateful for only one of them, differences that would be reflected in my attitudes toward the relevant agents.6 Second, it is not quite clear that having the door held for one is significant enough to be called a “benefit” at all. It would clearly count as a benefit if it were somewhat burdensome to open the door ourselves. Since for most of us it is not, calling it a benefit is a bit of a stretch. At any rate, since I don’t believe that the door’s being held for me is a benefit, it is pretty clear that I am not grateful to the agent.
I have pointed to two differences between holding the door for someone and giving a comment at a conference that appear to indicate that I should be grateful only to my commentators. The two situations are therefore normatively different. One might insist, however, that the sort of gratitude called for in the conference case should involve certain dispositions—affective and motivational—that I don’t have, implying that I am not genuinely grateful. Perhaps, indeed, I should be disposed to give a comment in return, or to feel a certain way about my commentators. If I am not so disposed, the thought goes, I am not really grateful to them.
I have two responses to this argument to the effect that, given my dispositions, I am not genuinely grateful to my commentators even if I sincerely judge that I am. First, we should distinguish between the grateful response that one should form in a given context and the grateful response that one actually forms. Perhaps I should have the relevant sort of dispositions to be appropriately grateful to my commentators. This, however, does not entail that I am not ...


  1. Acknowledgments
  2. The Emotion-Virtue-Debt Triad of Gratitude: An Introduction to The Moral Psychology of Gratitude
  3. Part I: Reasons and Action
  4. Part II: Gratitude, Rights, and Duties
  5. Part III: Gratitude as a Reactive Attitude
  6. Part IV: Authentic Selves and Brains
  7. Part V: Gratitude and Virtue
  8. Index
  9. About the Contributors
Estilos de citas para The Moral Psychology of Gratitude

APA 6 Citation

[author missing]. (2019). The Moral Psychology of Gratitude (1st ed.). Rowman & Littlefield International. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

[author missing]. (2019) 2019. The Moral Psychology of Gratitude. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International.

Harvard Citation

[author missing] (2019) The Moral Psychology of Gratitude. 1st edn. Rowman & Littlefield International. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

[author missing]. The Moral Psychology of Gratitude. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.