Recently I listened to about 20 minutes of a special on NPR about the science of gratitude. I happened to tune in at the point where the specific topic was how some people feel indebtedness in circumstances in which others feel gratitude instead. Apparently this indebtedness view goes at least back to Aristotle, who said that “doing good is proper to the superior person, and receiving it to the inferior”. I’ve found a larger philosophical analysis of this topic here, which delves at length into the question of gratitude as moral obligation. Reflections on this concept in the modern era refer to Kant’s thoughts on the subject:
. . . Kant suggested in the Lectures on Ethics that beneficiaries should cringe at receiving favors, since in doing so, a beneficiary becomes the debtor of his benefactor—a shameful position (Kant 1775–1780 : 118–119). For Kant, owing an obligation of gratitude is especially bad, since duties of gratitude are sacred duties—duties which can never be fully discharged. This is because any attempt on a beneficiary’s part to “pay off” the debt of gratitude will always be done essentially as a reaction to the original act of benevolence. The benefactor alone has the honor of having acted benevolently in a purely proactive way. Insofar as we would want to avoid being in such an eternally imbalanced relationship, we should be wary of accepting gifts and favors.
I had never thought about this dichotomy before and my initial reaction was decidedly negative. I try to prize gratitude. I think it’s important to thank my husband for things he does, to always thank whoever cooked dinner, to say thank you and write thank you notes and teach my children to do the same. One of our family practices at Thanksgiving is to write down what we are grateful for – our health, our home, the food on our table. Continue reading