Recently I read two very different books emphasizing gratitude. The first was Seizure the Day by University of Waterloo philosopher Brian Orend. Orend, who lives with epilepsy and is subject to unpredictable seizures, is nevertheless a high-achieving professor with a satisfying personal life. His book, a self-help book aimed specifically at persons with a chronic illness, offers many tips for managing health and achieving happiness. Following in the steps of positive psychologists, Orend stresses gratitude as something that will contribute importantly to happiness – improving self-esteem, social relationships, general health, and even sleep. The second book, by Oliver Sacks, is simply called Gratitude. It is a short collection of late life reflections in which Sacks beautifully expresses gratitude for what he was given by others, for nine years of good health after an initial cancer diagnosis, for having loved and been loved, given and received, thought, traveled, and written. Movingly Sacks says “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet” (20) and it has been an “enormous privilege and adventure.” Sacks will inspire. But his goal is not to do that: this work is not self-help but a moving expression of feelings.
Fascinated by these accounts and their contrasting contexts, I sought out some recent philosophical writings on gratitude. Not surprisingly, most posed technical questions addressed by neither Orend nor Sacks. Is gratitude a feeling? A belief? An attitude? Are ‘appreciation’, ‘thankfulness’ and ‘being glad’ synonyms or near synonyms for ‘gratitude’? Could gratitude include negative feelings? Is there an important distinction between being grateful for something, being grateful that something is the case, and being grateful to someone? Is there an obligation to feel grateful? To give back when one has received an undeserved benefit?
Orend urges that once each day one consider three things for which one can be grateful. Much later in his book, he suggests reflecting each month or so on what one is grateful for. Could this doubling of focus lead to overdose? No, he says: the objects of daily gratitude would be more specific and slight -- as for example, my gratitude to a stranger who let me in a line at the bank on a day when I felt somewhat ill. More substantial goods over a longer time frame – say being grateful for the music lessons I had as a child, resulting from the unusual initiative of a grade school teacher – would be suitable for less frequent reflection. (These are my examples.)
Typically, someone, a beneficiary, is grateful to someone else, a benefactor, for something, a benefit received and understood to be undeserved. There are three elements: a beneficiary, a benefactor, and a benefit. But in the case of gratitude that one is alive on this planet, or to have been born in the twentieth century, or in Canada as contrasted with a more repressive country, that model does not work well.
Cosmic gratitude, they call it:, and this is what interested me. What if, like Oliver Sacks, one feels grateful to be a sentient being on this beautiful planet? This fits ‘I am grateful that…’ But it’s still puzzling. Who would receive the ‘benefit’ of being a sentient being? When she exists as a reflective being, a person may feel that she is lucky to be alive in her time and place. But she could not have received this benefit at the time it was supposedly given, because at that time she did not exist. This was the benefit of existence . . . given to whom? One can find logical problems about the sense in which what was given can really count as a benefit, if there is no one to receive it. Some sort of after-the-fact analysis seems to be needed at this point. I didn’t find this problem in the philosophical articles I read. And assuming that such a benefit can be given, who would grant such it? For theists, an answer to this question seems obvious. It would be God. But for non-theists there remains a problem. Can cosmic gratitude make sense for non-theists?
Robert C. Roberts (“Cosmic Gratitude” European Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 2014) maintains that the beneficiary/benefactor/benefit structure is essential to gratitude. Gratitude makes sense when someone can be grateful to someone else for something. On his account, a to/for structure is required for gratitude. For example, I am grateful to the stranger for giving me a place in the line. I am grateful to those who visited me in the hospital for their visits and good cheer. In the case of cosmic gratitude, the theist can identify a benefactor and the non-theist cannot; on Roberts’ account, this structure is essential, so cosmic gratitude is a puzzle for non-theists. Roberts acknowledges that the sorts of feelings expressed by Oliver Sacks exist, but argues that people feeling them will try to somehow fit them into a to/for model. One is grateful to X for one’s existence. If there is no clear benefactor, we will try to construct one: that’s X.
Reflecting within the to/for framework explained by Roberts, if I feel a cosmic gratitude for my existence and am not a theist, I could feel grateful not just to my parents but to the very many people in my life who have provided facilities of governance, education, health, and community that were needed for me to live and develop. We can find benefactors and these would be many, some indirect, most unknown. Gratitude would be scattered, recalling Hillary Clinton’s statement that it takes a village to raise a child. I may think of my parents as the benefactors who gave me my existence. Yet the fit of Roberts’ model here is uneasy. Why did just this sperm meet just this egg at just this time in just this place? It just happened. It was luck, assuming that I am glad to have my life. I may be grateful for my existence, but to whom or what do I owe it?
To what could the non-theist be grateful? Chance, or fate? The universe? The world? Evolution? Life itself? In “Can Non-Theists Appropriately Experience Existential Gratitude?” (Religious Studies 2016) Michael Lacewing writes about this problem. He denies that the to/for structure is essential. On Lacewing’s account, the questions ‘Grateful to whom? To what?’ need not have an answer. Ultimately, Lacewing defends the coherence of cosmic gratitude, saying that he is grateful for the “undeserved contingent nature of my existence and its dependence on the wondrous fact of the existence of anything, the contingency of evolution, and the many activities of other living things and people.”
The sentiment is beautiful and powerful. To me, it makes sense even though it does not fit the model urged by Roberts. So what about another question, one about giving back? If a person is grateful for her life, should she feel and act on her sense of gratitude? Should we give back to the many, many who have provided us life and development? What would it mean to ‘give back’, granting that we cannot even identify all the people who have given us the lives we have? Is there an obligation to do that? And to whom or what would we owe that obligation? Brian Orend never discusses these matters because his book has another purpose, and the same can be said for Oliver Sacks. There is every indication that both men feel cosmic gratitude, though neither probe its intellectual challenges. It is clear from his book that Orend has given much to his students, community, friends and family. The point also holds for Sacks, given his decades of medical work and wonderful writings. These men were grateful, they had much to give, and they gave much. My sense is that we are who glad to be alive should do the same.