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Is Gratitude Queen of the Virtues?

November 20, 2012

Robert Emmons in Big Questions Online:.

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Consider these recent headlines: “Want to be Happier? Be More Grateful,” “The Formula for Happiness: Gratitude Plays a Part,” “Teaching Gratitude, Bringing Happiness to Children,” and my personal favorite “Key to Happiness is Gratitude, and Men May be Locked Out.”

Buoyed by research findings from the field of positive psychology, the happiness industry is alive and flourishing in America. Each of these headlines includes the explicit assumption that gratitude should be part of any 12-step, 30-day, or 10-key program to develop happiness. But how does this bear on the question toward which this essay is directed? Is gratitude queen of the virtues? In modern times gratitude has become untethered from its moral moorings and collectively, we are worse off because of this. When the Roman philosopher Cicero stated that gratitude was the queen of the virtues, he most assuredly did not mean that gratitude was merely a stepping-stone toward personal happiness. Gratitude is a morally complex disposition, and reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice.

Even restricting gratitude to an inner feeling is insufficient. In the history of ideas, gratitude is considered an action (returning a favor) that is not only virtuous in and of itself, but valuable to society. To reciprocate is the right thing to do. “There is no duty more indispensable that that of returning a kindness” wrote Cicero in a book whose title translates “On Duties.” Cicero’s contemporary, Seneca, maintained that “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” Neither believed that the emotion felt in a person returning a favor was particularly crucial. Conversely, across time, ingratitude has been treated as a serious vice, a greater vice than gratitude is a virtue. Ingratitude is the “essence of vileness,” wrote the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant while David Hume opined that ingratitude is “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing.” Gratitude does matter for happiness. [More]

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