Understanding Gratitude As A Virtue

Understanding gratitude as a virtue - is gratitude a virtue

The word gratitude comes from the Latin term “gratus”, which means “thankful, pleasing.” Therefore, in its simplest form, to be grateful is to have an appreciation and express thankfulness and moral philosophers have throughout the ages asked the question is gratitude a virtue?  However, when we approach gratitude as a virtue, there is more to gratitude than perhaps first meets the eye.

Gratitude as a virtue

In moral philosophical literature, gratitude is commonly thought of as a virtue (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). This as far back as Cicero were in 54 BC, he argued:

“In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues”.

(as cited in Tudge et al., 2015, p. 281)

Still, there is an ongoing debate as to whether gratitude can be considered a virtue. Tudge et al. (2015) argued that gratitude could be considered a virtue if it is seen to be as a disposition or a tendency to act in a specific way.  This reflects the concept of personality traits identified by a genuine wish to repay back, in some way or another, any kindness or gift that was received.  

Where Tudge et al. (2015) argued that a virtue could be considered as an acquired disposition, or behavioural characteristic, for the individual to ‘do good’.  They defined it as, “a persisting and reliable disposition to behave in a morally praiseworthy manner” (Tudge et al., p. 284).  So they suggested that a person that innately feels grateful when receiving any gesture of kindness could be said to have the virtue of gratitude.

Further pointing out that gratitude as a virtue follows the following features:

  • An individual has to receive a gift or some form of help from a benefactor.
  • The individual must feel that they have received something of value from a benefactor, that freely intended to provide the benefit without expecting anything back in return.
  • The beneficiary feels a wish to reciprocate and freely chooses to repay, if possible and appropriate, with something that the benefactor would need or like.
The development of gratitude

In 1938 Baumgarten-Tramer looked at the development of gratitude as a virtue.  They searched for age-related patterns of responses for gratitude and identified three major types of gratitude verbal, concrete and connective gratitude were each is representing a more sophisticated expression of gratitude (Tudge et al., 2015).

Although Tudge et al. (2015) argued that the modern capitalist conceptualization of gratitude has mostly been surrounded with the association that gratitude and well-being are linked and that gratitude must result in well-being.  While well-being is essential, if the current capitalist understanding of gratitude is that what one has to be grateful for must result in greater well-being and if it does only, then it should be encouraged.  

Tudge et al. (2015) argued if this is our current understanding of gratitude as a virtue than gratitude as a virtue has been significantly denatured and they note the fact that the use of “gratitude as a virtue” is perhaps being loosened too much by the currently dominant capitalist agenda.  This especially if the understanding is that one should express gratitude only if I am to benefit further.

Such that, they argued that modern gratitude scales do not reflect or measure gratitude as a virtue, given that most of the scales do not contain items that make reference to any sense of a moral obligation to return back the favour or help (Tudge et al., 2015).  This especially if a virtue is “a persisting and reliable disposition to behave in a morally praiseworthy manner” (p. 284).  Therefore if the capitalist understanding is that one should express gratitude only if I am to benefit further.  Then arguably, gratitude no longer remains a disposition or an innate tendency to act in a specific way so therefore not a virtue when expressed in such a manner.

Although in considering what gratitude is and is not Tudge et al. (2015) raised an interesting point asking us, is gratitude the same thing as to be thankful that one own’s or was able to acquire several valuable items. Or is gratitude as reflected in actions similar, to admiring spring blossoms; an appreciative for one’s health and the people close to us and finally feeling an innate “moral obligation” to reciprocate towards someone who has in good faith helped us.

A Video For Children Explaining Acting With Gratitude by The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement

So is gratitude a virtue?

To summarise, traditionally, gratitude was seen as a virtue. In that people felt an innate morally obligation to feel and express gratitude in response to received benefits (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). However, with time, mainly because of the dominant capitalist agenda, the understanding of what gratitude is has certainly loosened a lot.

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Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Tudge, J. R., Freitas, L. B., & O’Brien, L. T. (2015). The virtue of gratitude: A developmental and cultural approach. Human Development, 58(4-5), 281-300. doi:10.1159/000444308

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