Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The following is an essay published in the newly released book, New Threats to Freedom, edited by Adam Bellow and published by Templeton Press. The collection includes thirty essays by a wide variety of writers including Christopher Hitchens  (Multiculturalism and the Threat of Conformity), Mark Helprin (The Rise of Antireligious Orthodoxy), Shelby Steele (The Illusion of Innocence), Barry C. Lynn (Belief in False Gods), Peter Berkowitz (The New Dogma of Fairness), Richard A. Epstein (The Isolation of Today’s Classical Liberal), Christine Rosen (The New Behaviorists), David Mamet (The Fairness Doctrine), Stephen Schwartz (Shariah in the West), and Ron Rosenbaum (Cyber-Anonymity). The range of topics and writers is impressive. The essays are insightful and a delight to read. To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy, click here.

Kearneysville, WV. I think it is fair to say that gratitude is a somewhat neglected notion, one consigned to the realm of good manners but rarely uttered in dis­cussions of politics. But this oversight comes with a price, for as I will argue, gratitude is one of the necessary, though easily neglected, bulwarks of a sustainable freedom.

Any serious discussion of gratitude must at the same time con­sider its opposite, ingratitude, for—and I am not the first to observe this—we tend to be an ungrateful lot. In 1930 the Spanish philoso­pher Jose Ortega y Gasset observed that modern people are, among other things, characterized by their “radical ingratitude.” This claim does, of course, need defending, and I can imagine the objections from a variety of quarters.

When we speak of gratitude, there will be those who think primar­ily of etiquette: “I taught my children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and they usually do.” There will be those who think in personal terms: “I have a nice house, a new car, and a boat. Sure, I’m grate­ful.” Or there will be those who think in terms of the nation: “We live in the greatest nation on earth! Darn right, I’m grateful.” But, although the language of gratitude is not dead—far from it—some­thing is amiss. Our modern, affluent, technological, well-fed society seems to oscillate between smug self-satisfaction and hand-wringing despair, the latter coming on the wave of each new economic, politi­cal, social, or natural disaster.

Gratitude though means more than good manners; it means more than the pleasure associated with possessing plenty of nice things; and it surely means more than mere relief that we’ve managed to escape, or at least survive, the latest crisis. These are perhaps shad­owy reminders of gratitude, but they are not the heart of the issue.

Gratitude is a way of inhabiting the world. It is a disposition toward the world that reminds us that we are not alone. We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to no one. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It is a fitting attitude in the face of our creatureliness. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think of the ways our lives are related to others.

But gratitude is not a disposition we can simply choose to exhibit. We can choose to be friendly regardless of how others treat us. We can choose to act justly even if we have been wronged. But grati­tude is different. It’s a response to goodness. We are grateful when, for example, a stranger helps us find our way in an unfamiliar city, or when a friend presents us with a gift. In both instances we are responding to an act of goodness. Gratitude, then, is different from friendliness or generosity, for they can exist regardless of how another person behaves toward us. They can be initial dispositions. Gratitude, though, is a response. It requires the action of another before it can come into being.

Is there a moral duty to be grateful? Or to put matters in another way, does ingratitude indicate a moral failure? David Hume argued that there are some moral duties “to which men are impelled by a natural instinct or immediate propensity.” Hume ranked gratitude to benefactors, along with love of children and pity to the unfortunate, as moral duties to which humans are naturally drawn. Immanuel Kant wrote that gratitude is “the venerating of another on account of a benefit we have received from him.” Gratitude, according to Kant, is not merely a duty among others but a “sacred duty,” and to violate it would be “to extinguish the moral principles of benevolence, even at their source.” Why does Kant place such an emphasis on grati­tude? The person who is indebted remains always under obligation to the benefactor. This, Kant believed, is true even if the receiver pays back the benefactor in kind; no matter what the receiver sub­sequently does, it will always be the case that the benefactor acted first when nothing but goodness impelled him. To be ungrateful is to forget or ignore this original act of goodness.

Is it also appropriate to think of gratitude as a virtue, as an excel­lence of character? Cicero included gratitude among his list of vir­tues and ingratitude among the vices. As he put it, the virtues (or a good share of the virtues) “proceed from a natural inclination to love and cherish our associates.” Nature, itself, ratifies the law that gives birth to and supports the virtues. Without the ratifying power of nature, “what becomes of generosity, patriotism, or friendship? Where should we find the desire of benefiting our neighbors, or the gratitude that acknowledges kindness?” Gratitude is, for Cicero, a virtue rooted in nature itself. Thus, to act ungratefully to a benefac­tor is to act contrary to nature.

If we see gratitude as a moral duty, ingratitude is a failure to live as duty requires. If, on the other hand, we see it as a moral virtue, ingratitude reveals a flawed character. In either instance, ingratitude is a moral failure that we naturally recognize and condemn.

Furthermore, gratitude requires freedom. It cannot be demanded. It must be freely given. There is, then, an obvious connection be-tween gratitude and freedom of the will. At the same time, there is a connection, perhaps less apparent, between gratitude and political freedom. This connection is best understood when we consider the relationship between gratitude and stewardship.

Gratitude, properly conceived, implies action. To be sure, it is a disposition, but the disposition of gratitude creates a sense of respon­sibility toward one’s benefactor. If one receives a gift, for instance, gratitude would include taking care of that which has been given. If the receiver of a gift carelessly discards it, we would accuse him of ingratitude. To be a steward is to be a caretaker of that which has been entrusted to us. This may be a piece of property, an idea or a concept, or a way of life. Stewards hold something “in trust,” and to be a good steward is to faithfully fulfill that trust.

If gratitude, properly conceived, entails stewardship of that which has been entrusted, then ingratitude implies a failure to steward the gifts one has received. How is ingratitude manifested today? Let’s consider four objects of gratitude that have steadily eroded in our modern world, leaving four debts of gratitude unattended, four aspects of reality unstewarded.

First is the loss of God along with an acknowledgment of a moral law that exists prior to human will. One feature of the modern world, as opposed to that of the medieval world, is the ascendancy of skep­ticism. While religion has not yet faded into oblivion, the West is increasingly characterized by its secularism. Even in societies where religion remains strong, there is mounting pressure to domesticate religious belief in a purely private sphere so that political and social engagement is, for all intents and purposes, bereft of religious con­tent. God has perhaps not been killed, as Nietzsche gloated, but he has, in many quarters, been reduced to a mere placeholder or at best a subjective reflection of our best opinions about ourselves. Debts of gratitude to such a contentless being are not obvious or pressing. Nor are moral limits recognized as meaningful in a world where the moral law has been tossed aside.

Second, we have lost contact with the natural world. In an age where we are increasingly insulated and isolated from nature, we can become blind to the gifts all around us. When we come to think of our milk, meat, and vegetables as products of the grocery store, we have lost sight of reality. We have lost sight of the simple fact that we are sustained physically by animals, by the grass that feeds them, and by the dirt that nourishes the grass, all of which in turn are nourished by the sun. This is no small oversight, for when we fail to recognize our debts of gratitude to the natural world, we will read­ily, even cheerfully, neglect our duties. The result will invariably be characterized by carelessness, exploitation, and greed.

Third, we have too often lost a sense of place. Ours is a highly mobile society. We can travel with ease, and we can leave home and begin anew someplace else. Even if we stay put, the possibility of leaving can remain forever a live option in our world of infinite choices. But when the places we inhabit are seen as merely stepping-stones to the next job, the next opportunity, or the next means to stave off our boredom, commitment to a particular place wanes. We content ourselves with being residents though not citizens. Such attenuated commitments are inadequate to generate the love and affection for a particular place and people that is necessary for long-term stewardship. Stewards—so necessary for the health of a place—are replaced by individuals who see themselves not as caretakers but as consumers, extracting what they can from a community and leaving it when it no longer satisfies.

Finally, we have experienced a loss of the past. America has always been a place of the future. But in embracing the promise of tomor­row, it is all too easy to forget or at least neglect our debts to the past. To be bereft of a coherent and meaningful attachment to the past is to be unaware of what we have inherited. When we are ignorant of the mores, practices, customs, and institutions that constitute our collective past, we will readily neglect them in our headlong pursuit of the future. We will easily cast them aside if short-term advantage appears to necessitate their removal. Cultural and political stability therefore require awareness of the past. We bear the burden of those who have gone before. We owe a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. When we are properly grateful, we seek to preserve what has been entrusted to us, tending it for a time—and if we raise our sons and daughters well, if they have seen us bear our burden faithfully and with care, they may assume their own burden of grati­tude when our time is past. In this way—and no other—culture is transmitted.

At the end of the long winter at Valley Forge, George Washington praised the steadfastness of the American soldiers in such difficult circumstances. These soldiers, he wrote, “will despise the meanness of repining at such trifling strokes of Adversity, trifling indeed when compared to the transcendent Prize which will undoubtedly crown their Patience and Perseverance, Glory and Freedom, Peace and Plenty to themselves and the Community; The Admiration of the World, the Love of Country and the Gratitude of Posterity!” Yes, the world would admire them, and their country would love them, but

generations yet unborn would rise to thank them, for their sacrifice lasted only a few months, but the debt of gratitude would extend down through the generations as free men and women reaped the bounty of the sacrifices made in that frozen place. In other words, gratitude directed at the past ultimately implies a sense of duty to the future. Washington thought in those terms. His rhetoric suggests he believed his men thought the same.

The fact that today, one of the most significant things we are pass­ing on to our children is a national debt of breathtaking size, a debt that will necessarily truncate their freedom, suggests that we have lost the extra sense of gratitude and the corresponding sense of stew­ardship that the general and his men shared.

Gratitude, properly conceived, gives birth to ongoing acts of stew­ardship. From God we have been given life. We have knowledge of the moral law that provides the basis of order for human relations. Gratitude leads to respect for the dignity of human life and a willing­ness to live within the limits imposed by the moral law. The natural world provides us with that which sustains our physical existence. We should care for it with wisdom and gentleness. We have inher­ited from our collective parents a way of life in a particular place, a way of organizing ourselves politically and socially, a way of govern­ing ourselves. These goods, practices, and institutions cannot sur­vive much less thrive if they are treated casually or neglected. They require careful tending, constant nourishment, and loving care.

The freedoms we enjoy require not only vigilance but also fidelity, so that even when alterations in our social and political institutions are introduced, an underlying continuity remains. The alternative is perpetual innovation, which is to say perpetual revolution. Freedom cannot thrive in such a volatile atmosphere. When we are tempted to take our freedom for granted we are in serious danger, for freedom is only sustainable when carefully preserved and wisely protected. When it is treated merely as an item to be consumed or as a right to be demanded, freedom is in jeopardy.

Ironically, freedom itself can foster the mental habits that under­mine freedom. Chief among these is ingratitude. The affluence we enjoy is, in large part, a product of our freedom. Yet affluence can actually distract us from a proper sense of gratitude. In ages of mar­ginal or even scanty provisions, it is perhaps easier to think in terms of gratitude, for nothing is taken for granted. A person might even pray earnestly for daily bread and then thank God when it arrives. In an age of plenty, comforts are easily taken for granted, and how much more the daily bread by which we live? Could it be that grati­tude is more difficult precisely because we have so much for which to be thankful?

Affluence and the headlong pursuit thereof can induce in us the belief that consuming is our proper end and that freedom is the natu­ral state of human affairs. Neither is true. A life given over to mere consumption is not befitting creatures capable of noble acts, and freedom is a tender plant that requires jealous protection against its natural foes. If we are not attentive, the heady wine of freedom can induce us to forget or neglect the debts of gratitude we owe. Like spoiled children we demand the benefits of freedom while ignoring the fact that these fruits are the product of generations of struggle, sacrifice, and hard work. The debt goes unpaid, and the capital is recklessly spent.

Gratitude, ultimately, is born of humility, for it acknowledges that both the creation and our civilization are gifts. This recognition gives birth to acts marked by attention and responsibility. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is marked by hubris, which denies the gift, and this always leads to inattention, irresponsibility, and abuse. In political terms, the hubris of ingratitude is a caustic acid that reduces all in its wake to the fetid condition of servitude, for a spoiled child needs nothing so much as a master.

Thus, if gratitude is the mother of stewardship, ingratitude strips away the ground for an adequate account of stewardship and leaves nothing behind but a narrow concern for the self. Forgotten is our collective debt to God, the natural world, to a place, and to the past, all of which are necessary for an adequate understanding of our debts to both the past and the future. When duties are neglected, all that remains is the pursuit of pleasure or power. Neither pursuit sustains freedom. In fact, as these become increasingly the focus of our indi­vidual and corporate lives, freedom is correspondingly diminished. Freedom, to be durable, must exist within the context of responsibil­ities that limit freedom, yet in the process heighten its meaning by orienting it according to ideals of self-sacrifice, love of community, and care for others.

If freedom produces conditions that induce ingratitude, and ingratitude represents a threat to freedom, then it seems we have reached the ironic position where we extol the virtues of freedom yet discover that the very thing we champion is a danger to itself. What can be done? Clearly we must attempt to cultivate the disposition of gratitude. This will give birth to acts of stewardship, which are necessary to sustain an orderly and mature freedom. Unconstrained by stewardship and gratitude, freedom will invariably descend into license, and license will eventually decline into lawlessness. In such an atmosphere, tyranny is nurtured even as freedom suffocates and eventually dies.

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