Thanksgiving

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.

21 Replies to “Thanksgiving

  1. There might be a bit of a blurring of categories when people talk about thankfulness without an object. It seems to me to be nonsense unless it is understood as just a way of saying that one is happy about the fact that something is the case. So I can be “thankful” for my good health without thanking anyone only insofar as what I really mean is that I am happy about the fact that I am in good health.
    Whether one calls it targetless thankfulness or mere happiness, it does seem to be desireable to both focus on real thankfulness – where we acknowledge the people to whom we are thankful – and where we take a moment to remember the things that we are happy are the case. But strictly speaking, it does not seem quite right to call the latter “thankfulness”.
    One final point: I don’t think desert is really relevant. One can be thankful for the things one believes are deserved. If the police find the guy who stole my bike, it seems right to be thankful even though they were merely doing their job. I deserved their help, but yet I still appreciate it.

  2. Heath,
    Being imbued with the spirit of Thanksgiving (but not the spirit of theism), I don’t think I agree with all the components of your analysis.
    1. I’m pretty sure I can be thankful on others’ behalf, i.e., that I be thankful for something that’s good for someone besides myself.
    2. The universe is a morally capricious place. Oftentimes the deserving are made to suffer and the undeserving flourish. When I flourish because I deserve it, can’t I be thankful for that little smidgen of Kant’s highest good? I haven’t “received” justice from the universe; it just worked out that way.
    3. Is gratitude relational? I’m not sold on this. I think I can be thankful for a simple natural fact (the beauty of the sunrise, the sound of laughter, etc.) without attributing that to any causal agency.
    4. And of course, if there’s not necessarily a causal agency to thank for various facts or outcomes, then I cannot feel indebted or obligated to that agency.
    You’re proposing a kind of tri-relation: A is grateful to B for B’s X-ing. I think that’s too transactional a way to see gratitude. My suspicion is that perhaps this transactional model of gratitude holds sway because of the influence of Christianity, and while some gratitude conforms to that model, not all does. At least some of it is an expression of a pro-attitude toward good fortune in general. And I’m no anthropologist, but I believe there are cultures that have had thanksgiving-like rituals where the thanks is not directed at any personal being, divine or otherwise.
    I’m on board with the various ethical advantages of gratitude, but there are several others: Gratitude reminds us of our interdependence, and how none of us are really “self-made,” thus ratcheting down our tendency toward arrogance or self-absorption. It also seems to inculcuate a kind of resilience in the face of adversity; since a disposition to be thankful serves to remind us of our good fortune, it makes adversity less traumatic. Thankfulness is an excellent antidote to ethical solipsism.

  3. I don’t think (2) is required. A better substitute would be to say S thinks X wasn’t obligated to give Y to S. Suppose that, for all the good I’ve done in my life, I really deserve to be saved from a burning building today (I deserve not to burn to death). When you rush into the burning building and save me, I am (still) very thankful to you, because, although I deserved it, you didn’t have to do that.
    But I might be thankful even if you were obligated. Suppose you’re a fireman, and you’ve taken an oath to save people in circumstances like that. I think I would still be thankful to you.

  4. I’m inclined to think that David has it right, for non-theists who are all thanked up with no place to go. You can certainly be thankful that a certain state of affairs obtains without being thankful to anyone for it. I think it is coherent to be thankful for one’s good health, without having an answer to the question: thankful to who? To raise a difficulty, it might be difficult in this case to individuate being thankful that p and being happy or glad that p. The latter clearly have no indirect objects and might better capture the relevant attitude.

  5. I don’t think being thankful (to no one in particular) that P is just being happy or glad that P. I think the element Heath was trying to get at with his (2) is missing from that. Consider a couple examples involving directed-thankfulness, and one involving undirected thankfulness.
    (a) I’m glad that Mike Almeida didn’t come to my house and kill me this morning. But I’m not going to thank him for that (sorry, Mike!), because he had no right to kill me anyway. I don’t think I’m thankful to him either.
    (b) I’m happy that a new mall recently opened near me. But I’m not thankful to the developers, because I know they just did it for the money, which they will in fact soon receive.
    (c) Suppose that after years of hard work, I’ve finally finished building myself a house, and I feel damn well entitled to it. So my attitude is not one of thankfulness about having this house. But I am happy that I have it.

  6. The remarks of the other Michaels make me wonder if there’s not an element of the unexpected in objectless thanking. I.e., it’s reasonable to feel gratitude about goods that I might not expect to pass my way in the normal course of events because they are so rare. (And something good may be deserved but still rare.)

  7. Mike, those are persuasive examples. But I wonder why (2) is a necessary condition for thankfulness. For instance, I am thankful when the mail arrives on time, but I don’t feel like I don’t deserve it. I could be thankful for the new mall, since (maybe) I’m tired of driving so far to shop. But again, I don’t feel like I don’t deserve to have this wonderful mall nearby. There might be cases too where an agent can be thankful for something that she deserves. Suppose Smith really ought to be promoted, but expects that, as things typically go at Barely Normal U., she won’t be. Suppose that things go as they should and she is promoted. I think she could be thankful for that. In these cases the relevant condition seems to be that I am thankful for something that is an improbable boon.

  8. It sounds to me, based on the discussion so far, that Heath’s (1) and (3) are really the essential components to thankfulness (I don’t see unexpectedness per se as essential–it’s not hard to think of a counterexample). I don’t see how one can jettison (3) and still call it thankfulness; to put it very simply: how does objectless thankfulness for Y differ from being glad that Y? You could call it thankfulness just because you inchoately “feel thankful,” but what is there left of the original concept, in terms of a speech act (or “thought act”?)? As famously attributed to Lincoln, a dog has four legs, and calling a tail a leg don’t make it otherwise.

  9. how does objectless thankfulness for Y differ from being glad that Y? You could call it thankfulness just because you inchoately “feel thankful,” but what is there left of the original concept, in terms of a speech act (or “thought act”?)?

    I suppose I could be thankful to no object in particular in the sense that: if I thought that someone or something in particular were responsible for producing a certain state of affairs that warranted an expression of gratitude (which I don’t), I would thank that person or thing.

  10. if I thought that someone or something in particular were responsible for producing a certain state of affairs that warranted an expression of gratitude (which I don’t), I would thank that person or thing.

    Dan, I don’t think that this would be an instance of being thankful to no object/person in particular. It sounds more like you would in this instance be thankful to the person that satisfies the definite description “the person(s) that is(are) responsible for this benefit to me”. But that is thankfulness to a particular person (or persons). No? I guess you could call it attributive thankfulness rather than referential thankfulness.

  11. Is there a counterexample to (3)?
    S believes that X intentionally caused Y
    In his exuberance over the holiday, Smith throws hundred dollar bills out of his window Thanksgiving morning. By chance I am in the neighborhood and find myself an unintended beneficiary. Smith caused me to prosper, but he didn’t intend to cause me to prosper. I can know that and still it makes sense to be thankful to this person.

  12. Hi Mike. I don’t think that I would be thankful to *the person* who satisfies such a description since, in the scenario I’m suggesting, I do not think that there *is* anyone in particular who satisfies the description. I could strengthen the story by building in a consideration that I don’t even think that there could be such a person (or thing) who would satisfy such a description. (But *if there were*, I’d thank that person.) For the same reason, I don’t think I’d call it either attributive or referential thankfulness.

  13. Or if not to a person, thankfulness to a state of affairs (the initial conditions of the universe, perhaps?) that produced that state of affairs for which one is glad? But again, is the name “thankfulness,” which properly has a person as object, still apropos if adapted to such a situation? Seems exceedingly odd to me.
    The more interesting question, to my mind, is Why would someone want to preserve the name “thankfulness” even if it’s to no person? So as not to seem “unthankful”? And why worry about that if there’s no one to be thankful to in such a situation?

  14. Micah, Dan, and others:
    In my first reply, I intentionally put the matter in terms of gratitude rather than thankfulness. Perhaps thankfulness is a species of the genus gratitude? After all, it doesn’t hurt the ears to say “I am grateful for (or that) P”, where there’s no sense of gratitude being directed at any agent, even though “I am grateful to Jones for P” isn’t strange either. So objectless gratitude is possible even if objectless thanking is funny. I think there’s a difference between gratitude and general gladness, having to do with the quality of unexpectedness or luck: I’m glad that my breakfast nourishes me, but it should — so I’m not grateful.
    Just out of interest, here’s some text from the Wiki article on gratitude:
    “Thankfulness is an emotion, which involves a feeling of emotional indebtedness towards another person; often accompanied by a desire to thank them, or to reciprocate for a favour they have done for you. In a religious context, gratitude can also refer to a feeling of indebtedness towards a deity, e.g. God in Christianity.
    Psychological research has demonstrated that individuals are more likely to experience gratitude when they receive a favor that is perceived to be (1) valued by the recipient, (2) costly to the benefactor, (3) given by the benefactor with benevolent intentions, and (4) given gratuitously (rather than out of role-based obligations) …
    Research has also suggested that feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to subjective emotional well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In people who are grateful in general, life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).
    From a Buddhist point of view, the Pali word which we translate in English as gratitude is katannuta. The word katannuta consists of two parts: kata which means that which has been done, especially that which has been done to one, to oneself, and annuta which means knowing or recognising. So katannuta means knowing or recognizing what has been done to one, that is to say knowing and recognising what has been done to one for one’s benefit. Hence the connotation of the Pali word is rather different from its English equivalent. The connotation of the English gratitude is rather more emotional(we feel gratitude, feel grateful, etc) but the connotation of katannuta is rather more intellectual, more cognitive. It makes it clear that what we call gratitude involves an element of knowledge – knowledge of what has been done to us or for us for our benefit. If we do not know that something has benefited us, we’ll not feel gratitude.”

  15. Dan, you say,

    I suppose I could be thankful to no object in particular in the sense that: if I thought that someone or something in particular were responsible for producing a certain state of affairs that warranted an expression of gratitude (which I don’t), I would thank that person or thing

    But then you add,

    I could strengthen the story by building in a consideration that I don’t even think that there could be such a person (or thing) who would satisfy such a description

    But if you build into the story that you believe that no one could satisfy the description, then you could not reasonably be thankful to the person that does so. How could you reasonably express thanks to a person that you believe could not satisfy the relevant description? I can’t see it: “Oh yes, no one could satisfy that description, but I’m thankful to the person that might do so.” So that does not explain how you could be thankful to no object/person in particular.

  16. Hi Mike. I’m not sure what the confusion is. I never said that one could “express thanks to a person that one did not believe could satisfy the relevant description.” If I’m understanding the dialectic, *you* offered that suggestion on my behalf, but I rejected the suggestion.
    My point in the two comments has been how to explain how someone could be thankful to no one in particular, especially, as Micah wanted to know, “in terms of a speech act (or “thought act”?).”
    We can cash out ‘X is thankful (to no one in particular) for Y’ (very roughly) as ‘If X thought that there were a person or thing responsible for Y and thought that it would be warranted to express gratitude to that person for causing Y, then X would thank that person’. That is, I think we can cash out thankfulness-to-no-one-in-particular in terms of a subjunctive conditional, which by definition, means that the antecedent–that there *is* such a person–is false. Am I misunderstanding the dialectic?

  17. Hi Mike. I think I see now the confusion. Let me put it this way: ‘X is thankful (to no one in particular) for Y’ is to say: ‘If X were to think that someone or something were responsible for Y and that that person or thing warranted an expression of gratitude, X would thank that person or thing’. Does that clear up the confusion?

  18. Hi Dan,

    I think I see now the confusion. Let me put it this way: ‘X is thankful (to no one in particular) for Y’ is to say: ‘If X were to think that someone or something were responsible for Y and that that person or thing warranted an expression of gratitude, X would thank that person or thing’. Does that clear up the confusion?

    I think so. But wouldn’t you agree that the subjunctive might hold in w where its antecedent also holds? That can be true even in the degenerative case for counterfactuals. In that case you’d be thanking someone in particular, I think. So maybe you’d want to conjoin the subjunctive to the proposition that there is no one to thank, though there might have been. I don’t know whether that would be thanking no one at all or thanking no one in particular. It occurs to me (though I could be flatly mistaken about it) that the difference between thanking someone in particular for Y and thanking no one in particular for Y would go something like:
    1. (Ex)T(x does F)
    There is some x such that I am thankful that he does Y (Thanking a particular person)
    2. T(Ex)(x does F)
    I am thankful that someone or other does Y (Thanking no one in particular)

  19. The Buddhist-informed discussion of gratefulness that Michael cites makes more sense to me. Gratefulness as appreciation, then? But then thankfulness as gratefulness as appreciation still degenerates into emotive atavism, not thankfulness proper.
    On the other hand, ad Dan: appreciation of goodness for which one feels that someone should be thanked, even subjunctively, is a prima facie theistic “argument,” it seems to me. In square quotes because it’s not formal, just a primal indicator of some sort along the lines of Plantingan proper function. It’s a democratic sort of argument that doesn’t require a philosopher to see (in fact, if not a philosopher, perhaps so much the better!).

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