284
Pacific Philosophical Quarterl
80 (1999) 28430002790750/99/03000000© 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Published byBlackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Abstract:
In my view, gratitude is better understood as a virtue than as asource of duties. In addition to showing how virtue theory provides a bettermatch for our moral phenomenology of gratitude, I argue that recent workin the area of the suberogatory, our considered judgments concerning the roleof third parties, our reluctance to posit claim-rights to gratitude, and theobservations of preceding studies of the subject all lend support to my con-tention that the language of duties is ill-suited to describe the moral dynamicsof gratitude.
In this article I argue that there are no duties of gratitude. I do not denythat gratitude is morally significant; quite the contrary, I think it is of great moral moment.I simply believe that gratitude is better understoodas a virtue than as a source of obligations.
2
My Proposa
Consider the story of Marge and Selma, two members of the SpringfieldSociety of Antique Lovers.These two met at a Society function and havesince shared several lovely excursions.In addition to attending a numberof auctions and estate sales together, Marge has been to Selma’s hometo see her antique quilt collection, and Selma has been to Marge’s to seeher impressive assortment of old clocks.Suppose that while vacationingin Shelbyville,Selma stumbles across an exquisite and very reasonablypriced clock.Because she knows that Marge has been looking for justsuch a piece, Selma buys it for Marge. When Marge asks to reimburseSelma, Selma politely insists that it is a gift and exclaims that it is herpleasure to contribute to Marge’s fine collection.Now imagine that Marge vacations in Shelbyville several months laterand, hoping to find another rare clock, visits the same store.Although
GRATITUDE AS A VIRTUE
1
BY
CHRISTOPHER HEATH WELLMAN
 
GRATITUDE AS A VIRTUE
285
© 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
the store has nothing of interest to Marge, it does have a very reason-ably priced quilt which would make a noteworthy addition to Selma’scollection. Marge contemplates buying it for Selma but ultimately decidesagainst it.Marge is confident that Selma would love the quilt, but shealso reasons that Selma will not be mad at her for not purchasing it, sinceSelma could have no way of knowing that Marge came across such aquilt. In the end, Marge would simply prefer to save her money. In fact,suppose that Marge is strategic enough to recognize that she will neverhave to buy Selma a quilt because whenever Marge finds a quilt on herown,Selma will not know that she has seen it, and whenever Marge comesacross a quilt with Selma, Selma will insist on buying it herself!Much about the morality of gratitude is hotly contested, but manywould agree that Marge has a duty of gratitude to Selma.I disagree. I suggest that gratitude is a matter of virtue ethics rather than deontol-ogy. Certainly an ungrateful person can be morally deficient, but it is a mistake to say that one can be obligated to engage in behavior thatexpresses gratitude.In the remainder of this section I will explain theadvantages of construing gratitude as a virtue. The rst and most important reason to view gratitude in terms of virtuetheory is that it best accords with our moral phenomenology.In partic-ular, I think that the primary subject of our moral evaluations regardinggratitude is the agent rather than her action. To see this, recall the caseabove. What do we make of Marge’s behavior? Most of us are appalledby Marge’s ingratitude. Surely it is fitting for Marge to feel grateful toSelma and to express this gratitude through buying the quilt for her, andthus we are right to be disgusted with Marge’s behavior. But notice: ourdramatic disapproval is not because Marge has failed to do her duty;rather, it is because her behavior reveals her to be a horribly self-centeredperson.Thus, we protest “
How can you care so little about Selma? 
” ratherthan “
You must do your duty and buy the quilt whether you want to or not! 
” It would be disconcerting if it never occurred to Marge to buy thequilt for Selma, but it is especially disturbing that she should think of Selma, recognize the appropriateness of buying the quilt, and still not doso.Such behavior indicates either Marge’s insufficient appreciation forSelma’s goodwill, an excessive concern for her own money and interests,or both.In short, we are especially disturbed because Marge’s blatantlyungrateful behavior demonstrates a serious character flaw. Marge’sactions reveal her to be excessively consumed with her own welfare andinsufficiently interested in the welfare of a special person who has shownher an enormous amount of goodwill.Because we find this self-centered-ness morally repugnant, we condemn Marge.My claim is not that people never speak of duties of gratitude suchan assertion would be patently false. Instead, I contend that the termi-nology of duties cannot accurately capture our moral condemnation of 
 
286
PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY
© 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
those we find culpably ungrateful. In particular, I believe that we arespecifically disturbed by the
character 
of an ungrateful person, and toinvoke the language of obligations is to reach for a clumsy tool ill-suitedto express precisely what displeases us in an insufficiently grateful person.An ungrateful agent’s actions are not morally irrelevant, but much of their importance is epistemic in so far as they reveal the person’s concerns, values, and motivations – which are our primary objects of appraisal concerning gratitude. Many others have objected to the care-less use of the term ‘duty’, and, in advancing my thesis, I am merely apply-ing a standard distinction to gratitude in particular. For instance, H.L.A.Hart writes: “one factor obscuring the nature of a right is the philo-sophical use of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ for all cases where there are moralreasons for saying an action ought to be done. In fact ‘duty’, ‘obligation’,‘right’, and ‘good’ come from different segments of morality, concern different types of conduct, and make different types of moral criticism orevaluation.”
3
Following Hart’s general observation, I claim in particularthat a benefactor’s benevolent expression of goodwill can give a benefi-ciary moral reasons to respond with similar goodwill, but that these moralreasons do not leave this beneficiary bound by duty.I shall say more about the distinct types of moral reasons below, butfirst let me elaborate upon my earlier claim that culpable ingratitudereflects badly upon a person because of what it reveals about her char-acter. Fred Berger’s reflections provide an excellent place for us to begin.He writes:
Our conception of our status with respect to others involves our view of how they
feel 
toward us, what their
attitudes 
are toward us, how they
regard 
us. Our idea of how we arevalued, how we are thought of by others, and, thus, our view of the basis of our moral rela-tions with them, is bound up with these perceptions.We can put this point another way:having regard for someone as of value, as deserving respect and concern, involves havingcertain feelings and attitudes; thus when we display these, we exhibit what their normalstatus is in our eyes.
4
With this in mind, recall our disapproval of Marge for her decision notto buy the quilt for Selma after Selma had generously given her an exquis-ite clock.As I alleged above, we are disturbed by Marge’s lack of regardfor Selma.But how does Marge’s behavior display all this? We must beginwith Selma’s initial gift to Marge.Why would Selma buy a clock for Marge when she was under no oblig-ation to do so? Presumably, Selma bought the clock because of her inter-est in making Marge happy.Given their budding friendship, Selma hasincreasingly come to identify with Marge’s trials and triumphs, and, thus,Selma is pleased anytime something goes well and displeased wheneversomething goes ill for Marge.Although this identification is general, it is
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  284 Pacific Philosophical Quarterly  80 (1999) 284–3000279–0750/99/0300–0000© 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Published byBlackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. Abstract: In my view, gratitude is better understood as a virtue than as asource of duties. In addition to showing how virtue theory provides a bettermatch for our moral phenomenology of gratitude, I argue that recent workin the area of the suberogatory, our considered judgments concerning the roleof third parties, our reluctance to posit claim-rights to gratitude, and theobservations of preceding studies of the subject all lend support to my con-tention that the language of duties is ill-suited to describe the moral dynamicsof gratitude. In this article I argue that there are no duties of gratitude. I do not denythat gratitude is morally significant; quite the contrary, I think it is of great moral moment.I simply believe that gratitude is better understoodas a virtue than as a source of obligations. 2 My Proposal  Consider the story of Marge and Selma, two members of the SpringfieldSociety of Antique Lovers.These two met at a Society function and havesince shared several lovely excursions.In addition to attending a numberof auctions and estate sales together, Marge has been to Selma’s hometo see her antique quilt collection, and Selma has been to Marge’s to seeher impressive assortment of old clocks.Suppose that while vacationingin Shelbyville,Selma stumbles across an exquisite and very reasonablypriced clock.Because she knows that Marge has been looking for justsuch a piece, Selma buys it for Marge. When Marge asks to reimburseSelma, Selma politely insists that it is a gift and exclaims that it is herpleasure to contribute to Marge’s fine collection.Now imagine that Marge vacations in Shelbyville several months laterand, hoping to find another rare clock, visits the same store.Although GRATITUDE AS A VIRTUE 1 BY CHRISTOPHER HEATH WELLMAN  GRATITUDE AS A VIRTUE 285 © 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. the store has nothing of interest to Marge, it does have a very reason-ably priced quilt which would make a noteworthy addition to Selma’scollection. Marge contemplates buying it for Selma but ultimately decidesagainst it.Marge is confident that Selma would love the quilt, but shealso reasons that Selma will not be mad at her for not purchasing it, sinceSelma could have no way of knowing that Marge came across such aquilt. In the end, Marge would simply prefer to save her money. In fact,suppose that Marge is strategic enough to recognize that she will neverhave to buy Selma a quilt because whenever Marge finds a quilt on herown,Selma will not know that she has seen it, and whenever Marge comesacross a quilt with Selma, Selma will insist on buying it herself!Much about the morality of gratitude is hotly contested, but manywould agree that Marge has a duty of gratitude to Selma.I disagree. I suggest that gratitude is a matter of virtue ethics rather than deontol-ogy. Certainly an ungrateful person can be morally deficient, but it is a mistake to say that one can be obligated to engage in behavior thatexpresses gratitude.In the remainder of this section I will explain theadvantages of construing gratitude as a virtue. The first and most important reason to view gratitude in terms of virtuetheory is that it best accords with our moral phenomenology.In partic-ular, I think that the primary subject of our moral evaluations regardinggratitude is the agent rather than her action. To see this, recall the caseabove. What do we make of Marge’s behavior? Most of us are appalledby Marge’s ingratitude. Surely it is fitting for Marge to feel grateful toSelma and to express this gratitude through buying the quilt for her, andthus we are right to be disgusted with Marge’s behavior. But notice: ourdramatic disapproval is not because Marge has failed to do her duty;rather, it is because her behavior reveals her to be a horribly self-centeredperson.Thus, we protest “ How can you care so little about Selma?  ” ratherthan “ You must do your duty and buy the quilt whether you want to or not!  ” It would be disconcerting if it never occurred to Marge to buy thequilt for Selma, but it is especially disturbing that she should think of Selma, recognize the appropriateness of buying the quilt, and still not doso.Such behavior indicates either Marge’s insufficient appreciation forSelma’s goodwill, an excessive concern for her own money and interests,or both.In short, we are especially disturbed because Marge’s blatantlyungrateful behavior demonstrates a serious character flaw. Marge’sactions reveal her to be excessively consumed with her own welfare andinsufficiently interested in the welfare of a special person who has shownher an enormous amount of goodwill.Because we find this self-centered-ness morally repugnant, we condemn Marge.My claim is not that people never speak of duties of gratitude – suchan assertion would be patently false. Instead, I contend that the termi-nology of duties cannot accurately capture our moral condemnation of   286 PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY © 1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. those we find culpably ungrateful. In particular, I believe that we arespecifically disturbed by the character  of an ungrateful person, and toinvoke the language of obligations is to reach for a clumsy tool ill-suitedto express precisely what displeases us in an insufficiently grateful person.An ungrateful agent’s actions are not morally irrelevant, but much of their importance is epistemic in so far as they reveal the person’s concerns, values, and motivations – which are our primary objects of appraisal concerning gratitude. Many others have objected to the care-less use of the term ‘duty’, and, in advancing my thesis, I am merely apply-ing a standard distinction to gratitude in particular. For instance, H.L.A.Hart writes: “one factor obscuring the nature of a right is the philo-sophical use of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ for all cases where there are moralreasons for saying an action ought to be done. In fact ‘duty’, ‘obligation’,‘right’, and ‘good’ come from different segments of morality, concern different types of conduct, and make different types of moral criticism orevaluation.” 3 Following Hart’s general observation, I claim in particularthat a benefactor’s benevolent expression of goodwill can give a benefi-ciary moral reasons to respond with similar goodwill, but that these moralreasons do not leave this beneficiary bound by duty.I shall say more about the distinct types of moral reasons below, butfirst let me elaborate upon my earlier claim that culpable ingratitudereflects badly upon a person because of what it reveals about her char-acter. Fred Berger’s reflections provide an excellent place for us to begin.He writes: Our conception of our status with respect to others involves our view of how they feel  toward us, what their attitudes  are toward us, how they regard  us. Our idea of how we arevalued, how we are thought of by others, and, thus, our view of the basis of our moral rela-tions with them, is bound up with these perceptions.We can put this point another way:having regard for someone as of value, as deserving respect and concern, involves havingcertain feelings and attitudes; thus when we display these, we exhibit what their normalstatus is in our eyes. 4 With this in mind, recall our disapproval of Marge for her decision notto buy the quilt for Selma after Selma had generously given her an exquis-ite clock.As I alleged above, we are disturbed by Marge’s lack of regardfor Selma.But how does Marge’s behavior display all this? We must beginwith Selma’s initial gift to Marge.Why would Selma buy a clock for Marge when she was under no oblig-ation to do so? Presumably, Selma bought the clock because of her inter-est in making Marge happy.Given their budding friendship, Selma hasincreasingly come to identify with Marge’s trials and triumphs, and, thus,Selma is pleased anytime something goes well and displeased wheneversomething goes ill for Marge.Although this identification is general, it is
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