Skip to main content

Negative Feelings of Gratitude

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. See, for instance, A. D. M. Walker, "Gratefulness and Gratitude," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 81 (1980–1981); Claudia Card, "Gratitude and Obligation," American Philosophical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1988); Sean McAleer, "Propositional Gratitude," American Philosophical Quarterly 49, no. 1 (2012).

  2. Tony Manela, “Gratitude and Appreciation,” forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly. See also Liz Gulliford, Blaire Morgan, and Kristján Kristjánsson, "Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology," Journal of Value Inquiry 47 (2013).

  3. See, for instance, Patrick Fitzgerald, "Gratitude and Justice," Ethics 109, no. 1 (1998): 120; Roslyn Weiss, "The Moral and Social Dimensions of Gratitude," The Journal of Southern Philosophy XXIII, no. 4 (1985): 493; Joel Feinberg, "Duties, Rights, and Claims," American Philosophical Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1966): 139.

  4. Michael Stocker, "Psychic Feelings: Their Importance and Irreducibility," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 1 (1983): 8–9.

  5. Jesse Prinz, "Are Emotions Feelings?," Journal of Consciousness Studies 12, no. 8–10: 9.

  6. These examples come from Laura Sizer, "What Feelings Can't Do," Mind & Language 20, no. 1 (2006): 110.

  7. Prinz, "Are Emotions Feelings?," 19.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Gulliford, Morgan, and Kristjánsson, "Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology," 307.

  10. Robert C. Roberts, "The Blessings of Gratitude," in The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 64.

  11. It is put forward explicitly by, inter alia, Gulliford, Morgan, and Kristjánsson, "Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology," 307; Samuel Bruton, "Duties of Gratitude," Philosophy in the Contemporary World 10, no. 1 (2003): 3; James Ceaser, "On Gratitude," in Endangered Virtues Essays, ed. Peter Berkowitz (2011), 2; Fitzgerald, "Gratitude and Justice," 120.

  12. Peter R. Costello, "Towards a Phenomenology of Gratitude: What is ‘Pleasing’ in the Euthyphro," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 79 (2006): 262.

  13. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Benefits, trans. Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), III.3.3; Paul F. Camenisch, "Gift and Gratitude in Ethics," The Journal of Religious Ethics 9, no. 1 (1981): 8, 18; Card, "Gratitude and Obligation," 124; Terrance McConnell, Gratitude (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993), 83.

  14. Fitzgerald, "Gratitude and Justice," 120; Card, "Gratitude and Obligation," 119.

  15. "Gratitude and Obligation."

  16. Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics," in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1124b10–14.

  17. Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (Cambridge: Hackett, 1981), 118–19.

  18. Kristján Kristjánsson, "An Aristotelian Virtue of Gratitude," Topoi (2013).

  19. Indeed, as Kristjánsson points out, Aristotle’s discussion of kharis in the Rhetoric seems to indicate that he thought the experience of gratitude could be positive. See "An Aristotelian Virtue of Gratitude," §3.

  20. Houston Smit and Mark Timmons, "The Moral Significance of Gratitude in Kant's Ethics," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 4 (2011): 310.

  21. Christopher Heath Wellman, "Gratitude as a Virtue," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 80 (1999).

  22. Daniel Lyons, "The Odd Debt of Gratitude," Analysis 29, no. 3 (1969).

  23. Ibid.

  24. Bruton, "Duties of Gratitude."

  25. Weiss, "The Moral and Social Dimensions of Gratitude."

  26. Fred Berger, "Gratitude," Ethics 85, no. 4 (1975): 299.

  27. McConnell, Gratitude, 18; Bruton, "Duties of Gratitude," 2.

  28. "Duties of Gratitude," 2.

  29. A. John Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 170; ibid.

  30. Lyons, "The Odd Debt of Gratitude," 94.

  31. Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, 171.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Or so the context in each case seems to imply.

  34. For the sake of clarity, I will use names beginning with the letter Y to refer to a beneficiary, and names beginning with the letter R to refer to a benefactor. I will also use masculine pronouns to refer to beneficiaries, and feminine pronouns to refer to benefactors.

  35. For more on the distinction between the propriety and the correctness of an attitude, see Justin D'Arms and Daniel Jacobson, "The Moralistic Fallacy: On the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61, no. 1 (2000).

  36. In using this term, I follow Walker, "Gratefulness and Gratitude." Importantly, though, Walker uses the term to refer only to the first conjunct—a tendency to be pleased when a benefactor fares well. Walker never mentions the tendency to be displeased or upset when things go poorly for a benefactor.

  37. Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, 178; Walker, "Gratefulness and Gratitude," 49, could be construed as making a similar point.

  38. This example comes from "Gratefulness and Gratitude."

  39. This is a modified version of an example from Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations.

  40. For a summary of recent psychological literature making this claim, see Gulliford, Morgan, and Kristjánsson, "Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology," and P. C. Watkins, Gratitude and the Good Life: Toward a Psychology of Appreciation (Springer, 2013), chapters 4, 8 and 10. My goal in this section is to give non-empirical reason for doubting this claim, rather than criticizing the data and empirical methods that psychologists have taken to support it (though I will briefly address empirical research on the positive psychological effects of gratitude in note 48, below).

  41. Roberts, "The Blessings of Gratitude," 66.

  42. Ibid., 70.

  43. See, for instance, Roberts, “The Blessings of Gratitude,” 67.

  44. Ibid.

  45. The fact that gratitude might sometimes take the form of negative feelings suggests that a similar claim might hold, mutatis mutandis, for certain paradigmatically negative attitudes, like anger. Consider, for instance, the widely held claim that feelings of anger are negative feelings. This may be true for a certain kind of anger—anger that something (bad) has transpired. But when it comes to being angry at someone for doing something, the feelings associated with anger need not always be unpleasant. Imagine I am driving the speed limit in the right lane on a highway, when another car speeds up behind me suddenly, and begins to tailgate me and sound his horn aggressively. I have my two children in the car, so I fear for their safety, and resent the tailgater for his reckless behavior. After a minute or two, he whips into the left lane, and sends me an offensive gesture as he speeds past, disappearing into the distance. Five minutes later, I round a bend in the road to see him pulled over on the shoulder in front of a police cruiser, getting ticketed. In that moment, I feel good—and not simply because I know that the roads are that much safer. I feel good, and I might very well feel better than another driver who, say, saw all these events transpire from a safe distance.

  46. Roberts, "The Blessings of Gratitude," 68.

  47. Ibid., 67.

  48. At this point, one might worry that the reasons I have given in the previous paragraphs are contradicted, and ultimately outweighed, by the copious research from experimental psychologists suggesting that gratitude does in fact lead consistently to social and psychological wellbeing (see note 40, above). In the face of such empirical research, the worry goes, my arguments in this section are rendered unpersuasive.

    Though a full reply to such a worry would require a paper of its own, several brief remarks will, I hope, suffice for the moment. The first is that many experimental studies on gratitude may not actually contradict my claim that gratitude sometimes enhances mental disturbance and social strife, since most psychologists do not distinguish between gratitude and appreciation the way I did in Sect. 2 (see Gulliford, Moran, and Kristjánsson, “Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology”). Their data may suggest that an amalgam of gratitude and appreciation always promotes mental and social wellbeing, but they may not tell us very much about gratitude, the proper response to benevolence, in and of itself.

    Even if experimental psychologists did distinguish between gratitude and appreciation, however, some of them might still take their data to endorse the claim that gratitude, as the called-for response to benevolence, is uniformly conducive to wellbeing in the ways I have denied in this section. Insofar as they do, such psychologists may be guilty of a mistake similar to that of philosophers I discussed in Sect. 4: i.e., failing to test the connection between gratitude and wellbeing across cases in which the benefactor suffers terribly. My suspicion is that when gratitude is considered in isolation, and psychologists collect data on subjects’ responses to benevolence in scenarios where a benefactor suffers substantially, they may well find empirical support for the claims I have made in this section.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tony Manela.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Manela, T. Negative Feelings of Gratitude. J Value Inquiry 50, 129–140 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Negative Feeling
  • Positive Psychologist
  • Positive Feeling
  • Consensus View
  • Proper Response