Monday, November 28, 2011

Gratitude is a virtue: It works! (LAST POST)

Although an ungrateful heart is not an offence in itself, still a name for ingratitude is regarded as baser, more odious and more detestable than a name for injustice.—Samuel Pufendorf (On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, p.66).

For the purpose of our discussion of Chapter 5, Section 4, I'd like to start a discussion about virtues. These days no virtue is more appropriate than gratitude.*

It turns that intentions are important for Seneca. According to Seneca the intentions of both the givers and the receivers of benefits are of the utmost importance in understanding gratitude. Good consequences devoid of good intentions do not create a debt of gratitude. There are two different aspects to take into consideration: If the intention of a giver is not to help another individual, but to bind the receiver or to make that person feel bad, then a benefit has not been given, and gratitude is not required. Similarly, a debt of gratitude has not been fulfilled if the receiver of the benefit does not truly feel thanks to the giver but responds to the benefit merely out of a sense of duty or guilt or anger. That is to say, rules join together providers and receivers of benefits, and these are the foundation on which gratitude rests.
For how else do we live in security if it is not that we help each other through an exchange of good offices? It is only through the interchange of benefits that life becomes in some measure equipped and fortified against sudden disasters. Take us singly, and what are we?
Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan, proposes a argument with a political twist. From a Hobbesian position, gratitude is a necessary condition in society to assure us that self-interested people will be willing to act in disinterested ways for the benefit of others and for society in general. To use a slightly different terminology, gratitude (which Hobbes considered the fourth law of nature) helps to overcome problems of collective action when people do things that do not directly benefit themselves. Gratitude is thus less a result of the relationship between two people than it is a general social condition (or social virtue) that promotes general sociability in society as a whole.

In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, understands along a number of different dimensions. As a liberal economist, Smith thought that self-interest was more of a reliable foundation than beneficence and gratitutde for securing the basic economic needs of a society. Yet, he understood the importance of benevolence and gratitude. As Smith showed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790/1982), gratitude plays a vital role in making the world we live in a better place. Smith's analysis provided a secular account of gratitude that freed itself from many of the theological and hierarchical assumptions of medieval thought. Gratitude is a human phenomenon that binds people together in society.

I found this article in The New York Times. It approaches gratitude from the psychological point of view:
(...) it has recently become the favorite feast of psychologists studying the consequences of giving thanks. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive.
The point is made that gratitude is not indebtedness:
Sure, you may feel obliged to return a favor, but that’s not gratitude, at least not the way psychologists define it. Indebtedness is more of a negative feeling and doesn’t yield the same benefits as gratitude, which inclines you to be nice to anyone, not just a benefactor.
“Gratitude is more than just feeling good,” says Nathan DeWall, who led the study at Kentucky. “It helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy. “It’s an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
What are your thoughts on the subject?

*For this post, I'm borrowing ideas from the essay "Gratitude in the History of Ideas" by Edward J. Harpham, published in The Psychology of Gratitude, Robert A. Emmons, Michael E. Mccullough, Eds. (Oxford University Press, 2004).