The love of wisdom has led philosophers to explore the questions that relate to who we are and what our purpose is for ages. The love of wisdom urges us to think about the meaning of life, acquiring knowledge, our own sense of morality, and reality. Philosophy informs our political, religious, and economic lives, as well as how we perceive art and language.
Philosophy has been broken up into six major themes and inevitably we spend time thinking about all of them. Metaphysics helps us think about the expanse of the universe and the idea of reality. Logic helps us create valid arguments. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we acquire it. Aesthetics focuses on art and beauty. Politics directs our attention to political rights, how to govern, and the role of citizens within a political system. Finally, ethics forces us to think about morality, how to use our moral compass—or how we should live our lives. It’s easy to see how philosophy reaches into each part of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. When we begin to think of those parts of our lives, we are essentially budding philosophers.
Ethics is something that can be applied to all parts of our lives. Using ethics allows us to make decisions and then execute those decisions in a morally “right” way. We must wrestle with medical ethics, business and professional ethics, political ethics, and social ethics. What makes a decision and then a behavior, “right?” The answer to that ethical question is fundamentally focused on the idea of happiness—one’s own happiness and, even more broadly applied, the happiness of others.
Any discussion of ethics must begin with two critically important questions, why and how. The “why” is concerned with the fundamental principles of ethical standards. Virtue, behavior, consequences, and happiness are some examples that guide us to those principles, and they strive to be as ideal as possible.
The “why” of ethics pushes us to think about what could or should be considered “norms.” Because of that, ethicists spend time thinking about normative ethics, or moral ethics, and that effort brings us to the idyllic, exemplary moral standard.
You’re probably thinking that a moral standard is impossible because opinions are subjective and impractical to apply across the entire population of humanity. That’s why ethicists have raised the second question, “how.”
How humans act, how they interpret and adhere to a standard moral code or not, is a completely different situation altogether. One culture might consider a standard moral code to be insufficient when it’s applied to their own lives. Their interpretation and application might be different from another cultural perspective. How we apply any ethical standard arises from the perspective of the community to which we belong. Consider a community to be a collection of people that voluntarily associate with each other, and they do so because they agree to abide by generally accepted norms.
A few examples: A city becomes a community because its citizens subscribe to the laws they put in place. A community of fans agree to cheer on the same sports team. A community of worshipers assemble to worship the same divinity. How we obey the laws, how we support a team, how we worship the divine are descriptions of each of those communities. Adhering to all the norms becomes even more complex when we understand that each of us belongs to a variety of communities. The actions that result from normative ethics fall into the category that ethicists have identified as descriptive ethics. Our behavior, what we say and do, describes what we hold to be our ideal, moral standard.
If philosophy in general—and ethics more specifically—can help us realize our own happiness and behave in ways that make us happy, is there an appropriate response that should come from that experience? Can something that clearly affects us in such an overwhelmingly positive way go unnoticed, unrecognized? If happiness abounds in each of us and in all parts of our lives, is there an ethical response that each of us should be able to express? Is it possible to have an “ethics of gratitude” whereby a standard moral code of gratitude or thankfulness can be a norm in a community, or even better, a norm that can be applied to a culture or even across cultures? If so, how would that manifest descriptively in each of those cultures?
A cursory search on Google with “gratitude” fueling the search engine reveals that the idea of gratitude is anything but new. Philosophers, theologians, economists, psychologists, politicians, clergy, and even pop culture icons throughout millennia have been thinking about and wrestling with all that gratitude is or is not.
In the sixth century, Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.”
Roman philosopher Cicero, in the first century BCE, said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.” A spirit of gratitude birthed in us a desire to share that thankfulness with others. When we have benefited from another’s gifts for us, we confront them with thanks. For Cicero, gratitude gave birth to other virtuous behavior, all of which led to a greater sense of happiness in the individual and in others.
Marcus Aurelius, considered among the greatest Roman Emperors, offered his thoughts on gratitude. “Take full account of what excellencies you possess and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.” This advice seems to be most apropos in our collective experience with the COVID pandemic. With our lives altered in every way, many of us realized that we hankered after many parts of our lives that we had been denied.
I was first introduced to the 19th-and 20th-century theologian, organist, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, by my Wabash academic advisor, Dr. Raymond Williams. Dr. Schweitzer recognized the benefit of expressing our gratitude as well. He said, “Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.”
We must be intentional, thoughtful, even courageous when it comes to speaking or demonstrating how thankful we are. Seek out those who have acted as benefactors in your life and express your gratitude to them, either through a conversation or by reciprocating kindness and becoming a benefactor yourself.
Oprah Winfrey has a unique platform from which she influences millions of people. “I live in the space of thankfulness—and for that, I have been rewarded a million times over,” said Winfrey. “I started out giving thanks for small things, and the more thankful I became, the more my bounty increased. That’s because—for sure—what you focus on expands. When you focus on the goodness in life, you create more of it.”
Modern psychologists agree. From a study by Wood, Linley, and Joseph in a 2007 issue of The Psychologist (“Gratitude—Parent of All Virtues”), gratitude may have one of the strongest links to mental health. “Gratitude was more strongly related to this measure of happiness than all but two strengths, even after controlling for several demographic variables.”
Their research seems to imply that a spirit of gratitude is blind to demographics. Age, race, gender identification, ethnicity, and income levels shape who we are, and despite those demographics, gratitude plays an important role in helping people maintain happiness. They report that “people who feel more gratitude in life should be more likely to notice they have been helped, to respond appropriately, and to return the help at some future point. If the grateful person reciprocates the favor, then the other person is more likely to reciprocate the new favor, causing an upward spiral of helping and mutual support.”
Whether an “ethics of gratitude” exists or not is up for debate. Arriving at a universally recognizable expression of thanks is nearly impossible. Gratitude is something that arrives in us differently and then comes from us in unique expressions.
Based on all of those who have gone before us, it’s safe to conclude that being able to express our gratitude is essential. It’s imperative that we give thanks to those who have acted as benefactors to us—who have blessed us with something. It’s necessary that we must demonstrate our thankfulness to the situations that have taught us something or have moved us deeply. We have captured a taste of what it might be to not have something that we’ve grown to appreciate. That hankering brings with it gratitude.
Gratitude, when felt and then reciprocated out into the world, lifts up others, and motivates them to be grateful. With all the challenges we face today, being grateful for the blessings we receive and experience should be cherished. More than that, they should motivate each of us to act in the world in such a way that brings about more and more gratitude.
Bless someone else, offer kindness, sacrifice something of yourself so that others around you might experience some much-needed happiness, and then let us be grateful.