Among philosophers, Patrick Fitzgerald changed the terms of the debate when he argued that gratitude is called for in “two anomalous cases” (Fitzgerald 1998). One of these cases is gratitude to those who harm us. He developed his argument in the context of Buddhist teaching. Recently Nicolas Bommarito has contributed to the discussion, defending what he calls “Buddhist gratitude” (Bommarito 2018: 156).
Why in the world should a person be grateful to someone who harms her? The Dalai Lama is cited as a paragon of this position. He often tells his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese. Though the Chinese harmed him, they gave him “the opportunity to practice love for his enemies” and “gave him training in patience and helped his development as a person” (Fitzgerald 1998: 124). Gratitude to those who harm us provides an opportunity to be compassionate, can rid us of destructive emotions like anger, can bring about other benefits, prevent harm, and repair communal ties (127, 132, 137). But gratitude toward those who harm us is not merely thankfulness for an opportunity to practice virtue. “Gratitude towards those who intend to harm us manifests a concern to care for others, even under the most difficult circumstances, even when they exhibit ill will toward us” (Bommarito 2018: 158). Those who perpetrate harms do not benefit us, but rather provide opportunities, albeit unintentionally (Fitzgerald 1998: 152). One who takes advantage of these opportunities can become a better person, and that is something for which to be thankful. It is natural to think that this is a case of propositional gratitude – being grateful that there are opportunities for moral improvement – but Fitzgerald insists that the positive values mentioned can obtain only if the victim is grateful to those who harmed her (147-148). What is most distinctive about this account is that “Fitzgerald severs completely the link between the goodwill connecting intention and gratitude” (Gulliford et al. 2013, 304).
There are both conceptual and moral reasons to doubt that gratitude toward those who intend to harm us is an apt case of targeted gratitude.
Philosophers from Seneca to contemporary thinkers have highlighted several features of the moral requirement of gratitude. These include that there is a benefit provided by a benefactor to a beneficiary, that the benefactor acted from benevolence or goodwill and thereby demonstrated concern for the beneficiary, that the beneficiary acknowledge and appreciate the benefactor’s morally meritorious conduct, and that the beneficiary is prepared to make a return to the benefactor if a suitable occasion for doing so arises (Seneca 1995/1st century AD; Smith 1982 , 68, 75; Sidgwick 1981 , 260-261; Berger 1975, 299-300; Card 1988, 121-123; McConnell 1993, Chapter II; Roberts 2004, 64; Manela 2016a, 283-284). That the benefactor provides the benefit intentionally and from concern for the beneficiary is part of what makes her conduct morally meritorious. Any third party can recognize this and praise the benefactor, but the beneficiary has a special relationship with her. “The credit we [beneficiaries] give acknowledges that their [benefactors’] good will was of value to us”(Card 1988, 119). And the beneficiary’s full gratitude “entails a desire to make a return to the benefactor” (Manela 2016a, 283; Manela 2019, 298). These various accounts are advanced to tease out features that constitute the concept of targeted gratitude. Some psychologists too have understood gratitude to involve these elements. Tesser and colleagues have determined that gratitude is a response to benefits that have been provided intentionally and from altruistic motives (Tesser et al. 1968; see also, McCullough et al. 2001, 254-255). And more recently several psychologists have argued that gratitude involves a recipient’s thoughts and perceptions that include acknowledging the goodness of the gift, acknowledging the goodness of the giver, and perceiving the gift as gratuitous (Emmons 2007, 37-38; Watkins 2014, Chapter 3).
Peter Strawson’s well-known account of reactive attitudes provides a second source for analyzing the concept of (targeted) gratitude (Strawson 1982/1962). Reactive attitudes are reactions people have when they are involved in various transactions with each other. Strawson claims that what he has to say “consists largely of commonplaces” (62), by which he means that these ideas are held by ordinary people and embedded in ordinary language. Two reactive attitudes that Strawson highlights are gratitude and resentment. It matters to us whether the actions of other people “reflect attitudes towards us of goodwill, affection, or esteem on the one hand or contempt, indifference, or malevolence on the other” (63). I would not ordinarily feel resentment if another person trod “on my hand accidentally,” but I would feel resentment if he trod on it “in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me” (63). Analogously, “[i]f someone’s actions help me to some benefit I desire, then I am benefited in any case; but if he intended them so to benefit me because of his general goodwill towards me, I shall reasonably feel gratitude which I should not feel at all if the benefit was an accidental consequence, unintended or even regretted by him, of some plan of action with a different aim” (63). Strawson later makes clear just how commonplace he thinks that these reactive attitudes are. “What I have called the participant reactive attitudes are essentially natural human reactions to good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions” (67). If these attitudes are that natural, it is not unreasonable to think that they may have an evolutionary basis (Gulliford et al. 2013, 294).
The skeptic might think that Strawson is engaged in armchair psychology for which he has little empirical evidence. This brings us to the third source of support for the conceptual claims, some actual empirical work of psychologists. Joshua Knobe (2003) conducted two simple experiments designed to determine whether people assign intentionality to side effects that are either harmful or beneficial when they are not part of the agent’s plan. In one of the studies, a company official went to the chairman of the board with a plan for a new program, which he said would increase profits but harm the environment. The chairman of the board said that he did not care at all about harming the environment as long as the program produced significant profits. This was the “harm condition.” In the “help condition,” the chairman was told that the new program would increase profits and help the environment. Here too the chairman cared only about increasing profits, and was indifferent about the impact on the environment. In the harm condition, subjects were asked whether the chairman intentionally harmed the environment and how much blame he deserved. In the help condition, they were asked how much praise the chairman deserved and whether the chairman intentionally helped the environment. In the harm condition, 82% of subjects said that the agent did bring about the side effect intentionally, and in the help condition 77% of subjects said that the agent did not bring about the desirable side effects intentionally (Knobe 2003, 191-192). A second experiment produced similar results (192-193). The two experiments were combined to assess the blame and praise ratings. “Overall, subjects said that the agent deserved a lot of blame in the harm condition (M = 4.8) but very little praise in the help condition (M = 1.4) …. and the total amount of praise or blame that subjects offered was correlated with their judgements about whether or not the side effect was brought about intentionally” (193). From these studies Knobe concludes that “there seems to be an asymmetry whereby people are considerably more willing to blame the agent for bad side effects than to praise the agent for good side effects” (193). Knobe and colleagues did analogous studies with preschool children and found that a preponderance of four-year-old and five-year-old children exhibit a similar “side-effect effect.” They say that a foreseen but bad side effect is brought about “on purpose,” but a foreseen morally good side effect is not brought about on purpose (Leslie et al. 2006).
How the intentions of others impact people’s helping behavior has even been studied in younger children, and this provides a fourth source of support for the conceptual claim. Amrisha Vaish and colleagues conducted two studies with three-year-old subjects. They watched an adult either harming or helping another adult (confederates of the researchers). The children subsequently helped the harmful confederate less than they helped a third, neutral adult or the helping adult. The second study had an adult actor trying but failing to harm or to help another adult. Again, the children helped the actor who tried to harm another less than they helped a neutral actor or the helping actor. The authors conclude, “The present studies demonstrate that young children’s prosocial behavior is mediated by others’ moral behavior” (Vaish et al. 2010, 1667). Kristen Dunfield and Valerie Kuhlmeier conducted similar studies with an even younger group of children, twenty-one-month-old infants. In one of the experiments, one actress tried to give a toy to the infant subject but was unable to do so because it accidentally rolled away; the other actress was unwilling to give the toy to the child, pulling it back when the child reached out. Subsequently when these toddlers had their own toys which they could share, they strongly preferred the unable actress over the unwilling one, thus favoring someone who intended to help them. In another experiment, both actresses succeeded in getting the toy to the infant, but one deliberately handed it to the subject and the other pretended to drop it in a way that it slid to the subject. When these infants later had their own toys which they could share, they strongly preferred the helping actress whose intentions were unambiguous; in short, they preferentially helped those who had previously willingly given them toys (Dunfield & Kuhlmeier 2010). As Paul Bloom says, “[I]f children are really helping with the interests of someone else in mind, then they should be choosy about whom they help” (Bloom 2013, 52). And research suggests that they are choosy. (For a discussion of related research, see Haidt 2012, 74-75 and 273-274.)
It would be nice to have some evidence about how laypeople understand the concept of gratitude and what factors they believe would most impact their experience of gratitude. Fortunately Liz Gulliford and Blaire Morgan have provided us with some such evidence (Gulliford & Morgan 2016), and this is my fifth source for the conceptual claim. This work involves multiple approaches, including prototype analysis, vignette questionnaires, and gratitude stories. I will mention just one small part of this work, that which involved vignette questionnaires. These were designed to explore how various factors influenced laypeople’s understanding of gratitude, including cost to the benefactor, value of the benefit, presence of an ulterior motive (other than benevolence) and presence of malicious intention on the part of the benefactor (203). If P2 intended to harm P1, then clearly P2’s motive was not benevolence. Indeed, P2’s intention is malicious. What Gulliford and Morgan found was that the vast majority of respondents indicated that a malicious intention would undermine their experience of gratitude, though interestingly 12% of the sample “stated that they would be grateful even when the benefit was given with the intention of embarrassing or harming them”(206). The presence of an ulterior motive also significantly lessens the reported experience of gratitude (205-206; see also, Tsang 2006). From these data, we might reasonably speculate that laypeople would report no gratitude at all if the person with whom they were interacting intended only to harm them and not benefit them at all.
I conclude that the concept of targeted gratitude requires that benefactors act intentionally from altruistic motives; this precludes the possibility of P1 being aptly grateful to P2 when P2 intended to harm but not to benefit P1. But Fitzgerald (and perhaps Bommarito) can concede this part of the argument. For the point, after all, is reformist, to provide an alternative moral outlook to the view dominant among philosophers. The empirical work cited in the last three reasons, however, suggests that much of the standard philosophical analysis is in line with how laypersons think. But Fitzgerald wants to reform those views too. “So if the contemporary philosophical discussion of gratitude accurately reflects common moral beliefs about when we should be grateful, then those beliefs are wrong” (Fitzgerald 1998, 137). “If gratitude is not owed but can nonetheless cause great benefit or prevent great harm or repair communal ties, then the agent has good moral reason to be grateful” (137). But there are compelling moral reasons to reject this alternative.
The first thing to note is that the reasons given for being grateful to someone who harms us are instrumental (Gulliford et al. 2013, 312); gratitude in such cases is said to promote other important goods. As we have seen, among these goods are the opportunity to practice and develop such virtues as patience and compassion, a means of ridding oneself of disturbing emotions, especially anger, and a way of promoting peace and communal ties. In some moral traditions, however, especially that of Aristotle, moral virtues and the conduct they lead to have intrinsic value. This opens the door to an objection. “From an Aristotelian perspective, the problem with the instrumentalist routes is that they make the moral trait in question essentially replaceable. If you can find some positive trait that is more conducive to pro-social ends than gratitude, you can substitute gratitude with the other trait” (Kristjansson 2018, 56). If gratitude can be replaced by some other emotion or norm that has greater instrumental value in the situation, “that seems to fly in the face of prevalent moral intuitions about gratitude being an indispensable part of an intrinsically valuable moral life” (Kristjansson 2018, 171). Fitzgerald concedes that gratitude is sometimes replaceable (1998, 140). He discusses a case in which a daughter is trying to get her father to let go of anger and resentment against a prior abuser. She suggests that he be grateful to the abuser for giving him an opportunity to deepen his faith. But Fitzgerald notes parenthetically that forgiveness may be a more effective means to the end. And in discussing Faye, a woman who had been systematically abused by her father, Fitzgerald acknowledges (143-144) that there might be several ways to deal with her anger. But if “Faye found that she could not forget, excuse, or forgive”, then she might decide “to cultivate gratitude” (144). I find it difficult to fathom that someone could not forgive another but could cultivate gratitude toward him. It is worth noting that something can have both instrumental and intrinsic value. But as the quote in the previous paragraph shows, Fitzgerald asserts that even if gratitude is not owed, agents have reasons to be grateful if doing so brings about great benefits or prevents great harms. And in such cases, gratitude has only instrumental value.
If P1 is not obligated to be grateful to P2 for harming her, but has good moral reasons to do so (Fitzgerald 1998, 138), then how should P1’s gratitude be manifested? She will not engage in such harming conduct herself, nor will she recommend such conduct to others. “One is not, for example, advised to go around hurting others to give them a chance to practice responding [with care and compassion] in this way” (Bommarito 2018, 158). Moreover, if P1 is to maintain her self-respect, she will recognize, oppose, stand up to, and criticize the unjust actions of the perpetrators (Fitzgerald 1998, 142). So why should someone display gratitude toward a person who has harmed her? “Gratitude is warranted when an agent accurately notices the direct benefits or the opportunities which another has created for him, and develops appreciation, goodwill, and the disposition to act on that appreciation and goodwill because of those benefits or opportunities” (Fitzgerald 1998, 146). In the standard case of targeted gratitude, the benefit has been provided intentionally and from benevolence, and the appreciation, goodwill, and conduct that follow from that recognition are ways of crediting the benefactor and acknowledging the benefactor’s desert. But when a person harms another intentionally, that conduct is criticized not credited. So what is the person harmed supposed to be grateful for? The answer is opportunities, opportunities that “are given” (126) by the perpetrator, opportunities that the enemy “gives us” (132), opportunities that the perpetrator “has created for” the victim (146). This merges benefits and opportunities in a way that seems plausible only because ordinarily to provide people with opportunities is to provide them with benefits. But to say that the perpetrator of harm “gives” or “creates” opportunities for those harmed is misleading. As Tony Manela puts it, “the agents were not intending their actions under the same description as the actions for which their beneficiaries were grateful” (Manela 2016a, 287). The only thing that the perpetrator did was to create for others a bad situation. The victims admirably turned this situation into an opportunity for moral growth. The perpetrator no more deserves gratitude than does a passerby who unknowingly frightens a mugger, thereby sparing you harm, or a taxi driver whose lateness caused you to miss a plane that subsequently crashes (Simmons 1979, 170-171).
So why not say that propositional gratitude is what is apt in this case? Fitzgerald insists that the victims have moral reasons to be grateful to their assailants because only gratitude to the assailants will rid the victims of their toxic anger (148). But such a claim strains credulity. Forgiveness, compassion, or following the counsel to love thy enemy as thyself (Matthew 5: 43-45) surely are effective antidotes to anger that can replace targeted gratitude. Gratitude’s intrinsic value is a beneficiary recognizing and appreciating the benefactor’s morally meritorious conduct and being willing to make a return to the benefactor if a suitable occasion for doing so arises (Smith 1982 , 68, 73; Price 1974 , 152; Sidgwick 1981 , 260-261). The beneficiary has a special reason to prize, not merely praise, the benefactor. This norm is essential to a morally good life and so cannot be replaced.
There are other moral reasons for not accepting this expansionist view of targeted gratitude. Fitzgerald assumes that anger is vice (1998, 132) and that anger is morally problematic (148). But a more plausible view is that anger is sometimes fitting and can be justified (Aristotle 1985/4th century BC 1125b 26 – 1126a 3). As Robert Roberts states, “Our initial intuitions may tell us that anger is a bad emotion, but a little further reflection may convince us that we would not want to rule it out of human life if we could (we can’t). Anger is sometimes on the side of justice and the noble heart. Likewise, gratitude may sometimes be fawning or misconceived” (Roberts 2004, 59). Some psychologists also hold that gratitude and anger are conflicting emotions. Robert Emmons writes that “[g]ratitude drives out toxic emotions of resentment, anger, and envy…” (Emmons 2007, 66). And later he says, “The Buddha said that ‘Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness.’ You cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time, or forgiving and vengeful” (74). But as Liz Jackson points out (Jackson 2016, 286-287), Martin Luther King Jr. could at the same time be angry about white supremacist laws and practices and appreciate some of his own good fortunes and that some things were getting better. As Roberts puts it, “It is possible for a person to resent some things and be grateful for others; the well-functioning person will be in just this condition” (Roberts 2004, 69).
Another reason for not accepting this expansionist view of targeted gratitude is that it is at odds with our moral experience. Consider two cases. In the anomalous case, P1 intentionally harms P2 and in so doing manifests no concern for P2’s well-being. In the standard case, P1 intentionally provides a benefit to P2 and in so doing manifests concern for P2’s well-being. P2’s targeted gratitude to P1 in the standard case is a response to moral merit; it is a kind of prizing that P2 can most appropriately provide. Even if, following Fitzgerald, P2 is grateful to P1 in the anomalous case, that gratitude is not a response to moral merit; it is qualitatively different from the gratitude in the standard case. Fitzgerald acknowledges that the critic might say that there are “two very different sentiments” (1998, 149) in the anomalous and standard cases, but thinks that the objection has no purchase. He asserts, “There is no unique difference in sentiment that we can use to distinguish my anomalous cases from standard cases” (149). He goes on to suggest that a beneficiary’s experience of gratitude will vary greatly depending on his relationship with and fondness of the benefactor. He may like her, or he may not like her; he may agree with her political beliefs, or he may disagree. Many factors may influence how he experiences gratitude to her. So the differences in experience between the anomalous cases and the standard cases are of no consequence. “We can have gratitude in all of these cases because it is possible to recognize the value or significance of a person or an act and the role that the person or act plays in our life” (150). But there is a unique difference between the response in the standard case and the anomalous case. In the standard case the beneficiary is responding to an act that manifested concern for his well-being; in the anomalous case, not only was no concern manifested, but hatred or dislike was present. There is intrinsic moral value in a beneficiary’s acknowledgement and appreciation of a benefactor’s morally meritorious conduct and that is why there is a qualitative difference between the standard case and the anomalous case.
An additional reason for resisting this expansionist view of targeted gratitude is the fear that it may encourage tolerating oppression and injustice (Jackson 2016, 283-286). Being grateful to those who harm us may encourage servility. Fitzgerald thinks that this need not be so. He points out that the Dalai Lama and others maintained self-respect even while being grateful to those who harmed them. “Their feelings of gratitude did not stop them from opposing, standing up to, and criticizing the words and actions of those who persecuted them” (142). There is something a bit odd here. It seems that the Dalai Lama is thanking the Chinese for creating an opportunity to cultivate virtue and simultaneously saying that such conduct is unjust and should cease. There are some strains of thought in the psychological literature that makes Jackson’s worries especially important. Because of the emphasis on the positivity of gratitude, psychologists often say that any negative emotions or attitudes cannot coexist with gratitude. Thus, Emmons writes, “The tendency to blame others can be a strong resistance against gratitude” (Emmons 2007, 137). And Watkins says, “The grateful person does not feel that life has been unfair, that they have not received their ‘just desserts’, and that they are entitled to more benefits than they have received in life” (Watkins 2014, 76). This does not ring true. When, in 1955, Rosa Parks defied Alabama’s segregation laws by refusing to sit in the back of the bus, she surely believed that she and others were being treated unjustly. But this need not preclude her being grateful to her friends and family for their love and support (McConnell 2016, 20-21). And slaves during the nineteenth century in the United States had every reason to believe that they were being treated unjustly and denied basic human rights, yet they could express and exhibit gratitude to those who treated them with respect and kindness (McConnell 2017).
There are, then, conceptual reasons for resisting the expansionist account of targeted gratitude. And though some of the proponents of the expansionist account would concede this because they are offering an alternative moral perspective, one that they believe is superior to the more common view, there are multiple reasons for denying that this perspective is morally preferable.