The postman dropped off a card today. It was from an old friend whom I hadn’t talked to in a long time. The card was accompanied by a gift. A new book from an author I like. I felt immensely grateful for this. My friend and I have drifted apart over the years. For them to suddenly think of me in this way was unexpected.
Later in the morning I went for a walk. I live on the Irish coast. Approximately 500 yards from my house there is promenade with views onto the Atlantic ocean. It was sunny and calm — a rare coincidence in these parts — and as I walked along the promenade I could feel the warmth of the winter sun on the back of my neck. I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience this, to see such beauty in the world, to be alive at this time.
Both of these incidents (which may or may not have happened) raise philosophical questions. In both cases, I claimed to feel gratitude. In the first, my gratitude was directed toward a person — the friend from whom I have drifted apart — in the second, my gratitude was directed to no one in particular — I am not a theist and I do not believe that my presence in this world is the result of divine act of creation. Here’s the question: Am I right to experience gratitude in both cases?
That’s what I want to answer in the remainder of this post. I do so by drawing upon Michael Lacewing’s recent article ‘Can Non-Theists Appropriately Feel Existential Gratitude?’. Don’t be fooled by the title. Lacewing has more to say than is captured by its religious overtones. It provides insight into the concept of gratitude, the nature of the emotions, and the appropriateness of emotional responses. I’ll try to cover all three of these things in what follows.
The Concept of Gratitude: An Initial Overview
Gratitude is an emotional response to the good. But there are lots of emotional responses to the good. One can feel joy or happiness too. What is different about gratitude? One suggestion — and the one that Lacewing defends — is that gratitude is, at is core, an emotional that is felt in response to undeserved (or ‘out of our control’) good. That’s why I was grateful for the book from my old friend. I had no just reason to expect the book. It wasn’t as if they were reciprocating for something I had recently given them. It was completely out of the blue.
You may question this. You might say that sometimes you experience gratitude in response to goods that you deserve (e.g. those you pay for). Lacewing argues that even in these cases your gratitude is likely to be sensitive to some degree of undeservingness. Consider:
If I thank someone who has sold me something. I do not thank them (except in a perfunctory way) for giving me the item when I hand over the money. If I feel genuine gratitude, then I am thankful that they sell the item at all, which is something I have no right to, or perhaps I thank them for good service, which is something one does not ‘buy’ in the same way as the item.
There are different types of gratitude, varying depending on the nature of the good in question. Some gratitude is directed at a particular event or person. My gratitude for receiving the book from my friend is of this type. Some gratitude is broader and less directed. My gratitude for being alive and being able to experience beauty in the world is more of this type. It is an existential gratitude, i.e. a recognition of the goodness in one’s life that is undeserved or, even more generally, a simple delight in being.
There are some problems with this initial characterisation of gratitude. Some people insist that there is more to gratitude than a response to undeserved good. They insist that gratitude is a response to a gift given to you by a gift-giver. They consequently appeal to a ‘personal’ analysis of gratitude:
Personal Analysis of Gratitude: Gratitude is a response to a good that is undeserved (or beyond one’s control) and is experienced as a gift, and which is consequentially directed at a person (the gift-giver).
This is to be contrasted with a ‘non-directed’ analysis of gratitude.
Non-directed Analysis Gratitude: Gratitude is a response to a good that is undeserved (or beyond one’s control), which need not be experienced as a gift or directed at a person.
The personal analysis creates problems for the non-theist. If it is true that gratitude must be directed at a gift-giver, then the non-theist cannot experience pure existential gratitude. They can be grateful for some of the goods in life that come from other human gift givers, but they cannot be grateful for their existence as a whole. I would be correct to feel gratitude in response to my friend sending me the book; but not for the chance to be alive and experience beauty in the world.
How persuasive is this argument? Not very. The personal analysis of gratitude is popular among philosophers and psychologists, but it is usually intended to be descriptive in nature. It is not a normative account of when it is or is not appropriate to experience an emotion. Furthermore, it may actually fail as a descriptive account. The fact is there are non-theists who experience generalised existential gratitude (Richard Dawkins has written eloquently about this in the past), and some of the particularised gratitude that we experience in life does not appear to be directed at a gift-giver. Lacewing gives the example of a parent grateful for a moment’s quiet after the children have left. There is no obvious person to whom this is directed
The deeper question then is whether non-directed existential gratitude is normatively appropriate. To answer that we need to consider the normativity of emotional responses more generally and of gratitude in particular.
2. The Normative Assessment of Emotions
Philosophers have a well-worked out set of normative standards to apply to actions and omissions. If I see a child drowning in a pond and I could save them at no risk to myself, we would say that rescuing the child is obligatory. If I am driving my car on the road, we would say that driving on the wrong side is forbidden. If I am walking in the park and listening to music, we would say that humming to myself is permissible. Some philosophers add additional standards, but these three concepts (permissibility, forbiddenness and obligatoriness) form the backbone of our normative assessment of conduct.
How about emotions? Emotions seem different from actions and omissions. For one thing, emotions seem to be largely involuntary responses to the world we experience. They can be trained and honed over time, but they are not subject to the same immediate voluntary control as actions appear to be (ignoring all debates about determinism and free will for the time being). So to develop criteria for assessing emotions we need a better understanding of what they are.
Lacewing follows the dominant philosophical account of emotions. According to this account, emotions are appraisals of their intentional objects. Emotions have content; they are about something or other. I feel angry about the driver who cut me off in traffic; I feel sad when my favourite team loses a match; I feel fear when I see a poisonous snake. These appraisals then supply reasons for action. For example, if the snake is poisonous, I have reason to back away from it.
This suggests a way in which to normatively assess emotions. On this account, emotions can misfire. To be more precise, they can misrepresent the value of their intentional objects. Perhaps the driver who cut me off is an ambulance driver. They did so because they are trying to save someone’s life. For me to feel angry about this would be churlish and self-centred. Perhaps the snake is not really poisonous. If so there is no reason to be fearful and to back away.
Lacewing suggests that we capture this kind of normative assessment using the following three standards:
Appropriateness: The emotion is an accurate reflection of the value of its intentional object.
Inappropriateness: The emotion is not an accurate reflection of the value of its intentional object.
Mandatedness: The emotion is an accurate reflection of the value of its intentional object and that value is sufficiently high to make that emotional response mandated in the relevant context.
You can apply these standards in practical and cognitive senses. In the practical sense, the focus is on the value of the emotional response to the individual experiencing it. In the cognitive sense, the focus is objective: is the thing being represented in the emotion truly valuable enough to warrant that kind of response?
It is easy enough to endorse gratitude in the practical sense. There are a variety of studies suggesting that people who experience gratitude (and are encouraged to keep gratitude diaries) are psychologically healthier — less prone to envy and narcissism and so forth. Whether gratitude is cognitively appropriate is a separate matter.
3. So is non-directed existential gratitude ever cognitively appropriate?
The cognitive appropriateness of personal gratitude is obvious enough. All you need to show is that there is a gift that is good and that it came from a gift-giver. This makes it easy for the theist to defend existential gratitude. For them, existential gratitude is just a species of personal gratitude. Our lives are good (on average) and they are gifts from a supreme gift-giver (note: this ignores several problems concerning the quality of some lives and the problem of evil).
Defending the cognitive appropriateness of existential gratitude from a non-theistic standpoint is tougher. The theist will argue that it is just a mis-firing of personal gratitude. Lacewing argues that in order to defend the cognitive appropriateness of existential gratitude you need to consider its psychological origins (from a non-theistic perspective). He suggests that there are two main accounts on offer:
Evolutionary Account: This holds that gratitude is an adaptive response to life in large social groups. It is good that we feel grateful to others and try to ‘pay forward’ good deeds because it is fitness-enhancing. The non-directed form of gratitude is then simply an evolutionary by-product of this fitness-enhancing interpersonal form of gratitude.
Psychoanalytic Account: This traces the origins of gratitude to early childhood experiences, particularly the phenomenological experience of the child while breastfeeding. Lacewing suggests that in this early state the emotion is not directed toward another because the child doesn’t carve the world up into other intentional agents in the way that adults do; instead it is a feeling of relatedness to the whole world.
Lacewing says that the evolutionary account is no good for the defender of non-directed existential gratitude. It supports the mis-firing view of the critic: non-directed gratitude is the mis-firing of an otherwise appropriate emotional response. He thinks the psychoanalytic account is better.
At this point, I have to lay my cards on the table. Early on in my education I read several philosophical and scientific critiques of psychoanalytical theory (including the classic critiques from Popper and Grunbaum). As a result of this, I find it odd that someone would take it seriously. In particular, I find it odd that someone would attribute much significance to the (hypothesised) phenomenological experiences of an infant child. But Lacewing does and he has defended psychoanalytic theory from the classic critiques. I have not read this aspect of his work but I’m sure that if I did I may rethink some of my views.
Fortunately, I don’t think it is necessary to get into this debate to appreciate Lacewing’s argument about existential gratitude. The upshot of his view is that non-directed gratitude is a cognitive sharpening of our childhood response to the world. This sharpening of emotional response will be appropriate whenever it stands up to critical scrutiny. In other words, whenever you can prove two things:
Goodness: The intentional object of the emotion is, in fact, good.
Non-responsibility: The goodness is not deserved or not a product of events and circumstances that the individual can control.
This, of course, just brings us back to the definition.
Applying this standard, is non-directed existential gratitude cognitively appropriate? That depends on whether the contingency of our existence or the overall quality of our lives is good, and whether much of that good is beyond our control. It seems likely that these two conditions are met in many instances, unless one embraces something like Benatar’s anti-natalism (which holds that life, in general, is not good for us) or some mystical belief that everything is subject to your conscious control. So for many non-theists, existential gratitude will be an appropriate emotional response.
It is unlikely that the value in question rises to a sufficient threshold to make existential gratitude mandated, but there is enough to make it appropriate in many instances. That, at any rate, is Lacewing’s suggestion. What do you think? Is this account of gratitude persuasive? Is existential gratitude appropriate for the non-theist?