Sometimes we talk about being grateful for good weather or good fortune. Good luck and the rain needed for crops, gardens, or the local water supply could be things for which we should be grateful if we are among those who think that helpful weather and healthy babies are gifts. An expression of gratitude in such a case is like a prayer; such gratitude can belong to the virtues we cultivate through acts of piety. Outside some such context, talking about being grateful for an unexpected warm spell in January is more an expression of gladness than an expression of gratitude.
Mundane gratitude comes into play when someone does me a good turn, helps me, gives me something that I need or want, or, at least, tries to give me something that I might like or might put to good use. One version of mundane gratitude—triadic gratitude—has been the subject of considerable study in social science and education policy consultants in recent years. In this variety of gratitude, the scene of gratitude has three parts—a benefactor, a benefit, and a beneficiary. Normally, in triadic gratitude, the benefactor knows who the beneficiary is (even if they are not close), the beneficiary knows the identity of the benefactor, and both know the character of the benefit at issue. Some researchers interested in triadic gratitude focus on trying to gauge how thankful I am or should be to a benefactor, suggesting that it will involve, among other things, how welcome the benefit is, how timely the benefit was (from my point of view), and how much it cost the benefactor to supply me with the benefit (in terms of the benefactor’s time, effort, concern, or or other resources).
Although some researchers working on triadic gratitude sometimes treat this form of gratitude as a distinctive virtue, it may be no more than the attitudinal aspect of my giving others their due, in light of what they do for me. As such, traditionally, it will be an aspect of individual justice—the cultivated strength that governs such matters as paying debts, doing my part in joint ventures, and keeping my promises (even though, if I have any imagination at all, there will be things I’d rather do than pay debts, keep promises, do my share, or stop long enough to notice and mark specific things that particular people do to help me on my way). Where this kind of gratitude is concerned, a complaint that someone is ungrateful normally points to the fact that the person in question knowingly and clearly takes advantage of significant benefits that came her or his way through the generosity of specific benefactors, and, without so much as pausing to express thanks to the benefactors, behaves as though she or he was somehow entitled to the benefits in question, when nothing about the benefactor-beneficiary relationship suggests that the one owed the other any special consideration. Being in this sense ungrateful is a sign of flawed character, but triadic gratitude is not the whole of gratitude and may not track a special virtue in its own right.
To move closer to the variety of gratitude that may be a virtue distinct from piety or justice, broadly construed, think, for a moment, about thank you notes, and the old-fashioned custom of teaching children to write them. Thank you notes may belong to plain etiquette—little ethics, small ethics, petite ethics, the ethics of polite society. As such, they might find their home in the sphere of ordinary good manners or courtesy, a more elaborate version of the more usual business of saying ‘Please,’ when asking for something, and ‘Thank you,’ when getting the very thing for which you asked (the most basic expression of triadic gratitude one might find). But any adult who insisted that a child work out exactly how welcome, timely, and costly a benefit was in order to determine what kind of thank you note to write to the benefactor would be doing a very bad job of teaching the child to write thank you notes. If learning to write thank you notes belongs to cultivating a distinctive strength of character called gratitude, then it is a strength of character more alert to the fact that someone else did me a good turn (or tried to do so) than it is to how valuable I found the result of my benefactor’s efforts. Cultivating gratitude in this sense centers on learning to notice what specific people do or try to do for me, valuing this aspect of what the world brings my way through the good will of specific people in my world, and valuing those very people because they are working to help me along or prop me up or make my world better. Call this personal gratitude.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.