Our US readers are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The inaugurators of this holiday conceived of it as a time for giving thanks to God for the various good things of this life. In a secular culture—or rather, for secular people—is there anything to be retained of the day’s original purpose? Many people think there is something to be said for maintaining a general attitude of thankfulness, but towards no one in particular. Is this conceivable? And even if it is, is it desirable?
We can start by asking for a conceptual analysis of the attitude of being thankful to someone for something. As a rough start, I suggest
S is thankful to X for Y iff
1. S believes that Y obtains and is good for S
2. S believes that she herself does not deserve Y
3. S believes that X intentionally caused Y
4. S considers herself indebted or obliged to X
Now consider the attitude constituted just by clauses 1 and 2: S believes that Y obtains, that Y is good for S, and that S doesn’t deserve Y. We could call this attitude “thankfulness toward nobody,” but is it still a version of thankfulness? Or is thankfulness essentially directed towards a person?
A second question is this. I am inclined to think that ordinary thankfulness depends on the concept of desert, as in clause 2. But for someone who is thankful-towards-nobody, in what sense can they say that they have they received from the universe something that they don’t deserve, except in the boring sense that there is no cosmic justice and hence nothing is either deserved or undeserved? Is there sense to be had here?
Perhaps those issues are merely verbal. Here’s a final question. It seems worthwhile inculcating the ordinary attitude of thankfulness, directed toward particular people for things they do for you. It strengthens relationships, smoothes social interactions, and keeps one sensitive to norms of justice and desert. Is it worth inculcating thankfulness-toward-nobody? What are its benefits, if any? It seems to me that having this attitude is better than not having any kind of thankfulness, but I couldn’t readily say why.