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Gratitude

  • For several years now, I've started my day by hitting the "random virtue" button on this website and, after a frighteningly large cup of instant coffee, taking a walk round the grounds of the old reformatory in the mountains by my home here in the Basque Country to reflect on the result. This morning I've been considering gratitude:

    * I'm not sure if I agree that gratitude can rightly be considered a virtue, at least not in itself. The word may refer either to the practice of expressing gratitude, whether sincerely felt or otherwise, or the experience of gratitude, the often involuntary feeling of thankfulness accorded to something favorable to us, as either a virtue of praxis or a virtue of character. In the case of the former, I think it falls under the virtue of politeness, good manners. There are many situations where good manners demand that something be offered which ought not to be accepted, but nonetheless we are expected to demonstrate gratitude, whether or not we genuinely feel it. Unless we take sincerity as a cardinal virtue, to its very extreme, then this kind of dissimulation might very well be thought conducive to healthy social intercourse, but can hardly stand as a virtue in its own right. In the case of the latter, feelings of gratitude can very often be provoked by "bad" causes - a drug addict may feel grateful to his dealer, for instance, or a slave may be grateful for a raise in his wages. It would be wrong of us to feel gratitude if someone needlessly offered up their lives for us. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, gratitude due to mistaken attribution of agency, when we are grateful for good weather, for instance, may also indicate the presence of vice - in this case, the vice of egoism, having falsely attributed the weather as a gift, therefore with a giver (God) and recipient (ourselves), instead of realising that the same laws of causality produced not only the weather and ourselves, but every awful thing that ever happened, let alone whatever negative consequences that sunny day may have for other beings living now.

    * But what should we be grateful for? The most illustrative example I could think of is of two men, one innocent, one guilty, both condemned to death for the same crime. Murder, let's say. If both were to be pardoned, the innocent man should not feel gratitude, as he was done an injustice, and neither should the guilty man, as justice demands he be sentenced. I think probably gratitude could be shown to be subordinate to justice. Gratitude, properly speaking, should be love of justice, or else it is false.

    * Gratitude may be a useful quality, a virtue of character, insofar as it encourages us to appraise and to value things rightly, and to consider ourselves from the perspective of a recipient as opposed to an agent.

    I'm in a bit of a hurry, so couldn't express myself as fully as I'd have liked to, but any case, I'm grateful to James for this new platform and I hope we all prove good fellows on each other's journeys!