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November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving and a civics lesson in gratitude

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Thanksgiving is a wonderful time. Families gather to give thanks for their blessings and to reaffirm the bonds of kin and friendship. We remember the Pilgrims and other times in our history for which we are grateful.

But there is a deeper meaning to Thanksgiving. Something about the virtue of gratitude that the holiday embodies transcends the particulars of the Thanksgiving story.

“Gratitude,” said Cicero, “is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.” It is nearly impossible for a grateful person to be hateful or selfish. If you count your blessings more than your grievances, you are bound to become more compassionate and generous than someone who does not.

Theologians and philosophers understand the deeper meaning of gratitude. They see it not only as a good emotion but as a fundamental virtue in and of itself.

Martin Luther believed gratitude was the “basic Christian attitude.” It is often referred to as the “heart of the gospel.” This view is not limited to Christianity. In Judaism, there is nothing more central than the idea that we should love and be eternally thankful to God. The sentiment is not only theologically central but morally foundational. All other virtues — from kindness and humility to charity and justice — would not be possible were it not for the belief that we should give thanks to something outside ourselves, whether it be to God, our nation, our family and friends.

There’s also a civics lesson in properly understanding the virtue of gratitude. That great moral philosopher, Adam Smith, thought gratitude necessary for a free society. It can inspire people to care for others when there is no threat of coercion and no incentive. It is altruism, the sense of mutual cooperation and individual responsibility wrapped up in one. For most of our history, it made American civil society work.

Smith put it this way: “Beneficence is always free.” And from that freedom flows charity, volunteerism and, as Alexis de Tocqueville says, the many “associations” of civil society that once made America a successful nation.

Unfortunately this understanding of gratitude as a civic virtue is not as prevalent as it once was. The once-fierce sense of individual responsibility that prevailed for much of American history has given way today to a sense of collectively enforced compassion. We expect the government to do for us what we once insisted we must do for ourselves.

This switch has come at a price. Government-enforced compassion, whether as “giving back” to society or showing “how much I care,” sucks all the virtue out of the acts. As Smith observed, to oblige a person “by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it.”

In other words, an act cannot be virtuous if it is coerced. It can be virtuous only if it is voluntary.

There is another problem. Forcing gratitude or compassion corrupts those who receive the beneficence of the act. It replaces the virtue of gratitude with the vice of entitlement. If we feel entitled to something regardless of whether we have earned it, we are not only taking something away from someone who has, we are also destroying the very idea of gratitude. Those who feel entitled never feel gratitude; they are, after all, only getting what they feel they deserve.

So there’s not only an ethical lesson in Thanksgiving, but a civic one. A free society depends on the freedom of individuals to be grateful and compassionate. Remember this the next time you offer a blessing for America. That freedom, after all, is what made America a great country to begin with.

- Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times.

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