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We hear often that wealthy Americans should “give back” through philanthropy; indeed, philanthropists themselves sometimes use this language of “giving back.” A new essay, “No Thanks to Gratitude,” by University of Virginia professor James W. Ceaser suggests why we might wish to resist the language of “giving back.”

What is implied in the expression “giving back”? To give back means to restore something to its rightful owner. The operative virtue in giving back is justice. Giving back is therefore fundamentally different from simply giving. The operative virtue in giving is generosity.

Parents make this distinction many times a day: a mother demands, “Give back that toy to your sister!” when the girl’s brother has unjustly stripped her of a toy; a mother says, “Please give that toy to your sister” when the brother is being enjoined to act generously.

The demand that wealthy should “give back” is heard mostly from progressive or leftist voices. It arises from the view that an individual’s talents, aptitudes, and even inclination to work hard are not genuinely one’s own but are accidental traits that one was lucky enough to be born with. The Harvard political theorist John Rawls gave expression to this view in his highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971), in which he argued that our talents and dispositions are mere happenstance and that therefore we should not feel that the wealth that follows from the exercise of those talents is properly fully ours. Justice requires that those born with large endowments of talent cheerfully accept redistribution of the fruits of those talents to people less fortunate in their endowment of talents.

Rawls called this “justice as fairness.” When the wealthy are called upon to “give back,” they are called to exercise this sense of justice as fairness, not to exercise the virtue of generosity. Rawls’s views strongly influenced a generation of policy makers, including Al Gore, who was studying government at Harvard while Rawls was completing his book.

In contrast to the view that the wealthy should give back out of justice, one might suppose that they should give generously out of a sense of gratitude for their prosperity.  Generosity and gratitude are paired virtues; generosity should be met by gratitude, and generosity is motivated by gratitude for an abundance out of which one may offer a gift. Generosity does not require wealth, but we suppose that it is particularly easy for the wealthy to feel gratitude for abundance and thus to act generously.

James Ceaser suggests that the left not only makes its demands for the wealthy to give back in terms of justice rather than in terms of gratitude but indeed that the left is actually hostile to gratitude:

Gratitude is centrally implicated in ideologies of social change, such as communism or socialism. Far from being exalted as a virtue, in these ideologies it is viewed as a conservative instrument that protects the status quo and prevents progressive social and political transformation. Differences between the left and right in modern democracies are often best seen in each group’s posture toward gratitude.

Americans, for example, recoil today at the gratitude that minions sometimes show to their lords in feudal societies, equating it with servility. Ideologues of social change deliberately totalize this kind of argument. . . . Gratitude is seen as a tool of social control designed to keep people happily, even gratefully, in their places.

Herein is the source of the anti-gratitudinarianism that is rife not only among communists and socialists, but among most who oppose capitalism and demand reparations for past injustices. For people of this persuasion, the disposition to gratitude must be undermined and destroyed if social justice is to be realized.

A society in which generosity were stamped out in the name of justice would not likely be one that provided for those most in need; the warmth of generosity is needed to support those institutions that allow civil society to flourish. A robust philanthropy is one that gives out of generosity, not one that gives back out of a measured sense of justice.

James Ceaser’s essay on gratitude, one in a series of essays on “Endangered Virtues” assembled by the Hoover Institution, ends with his assertion gratitude will retain an important place in American civil life; if this is indeed so, we may be grateful for the continued role of gratitude in our public affairs.

1 thought on “Giving vs. “giving back””

  1. Gratitude has also posed a problem for more pro-market thinkers or actors. Consider Charles Dickens’ cutting description in “Hard Times” of the Gradgrind household, which was governed by the most up-to-date notions of modern education in “facts”: “It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter. And if we didn’t get to heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.” As Prof. Caesar notes, thinkers such as Hobbes (and one could add here Locke) laid the ground for looking upon–and eventually looking through–gratitude as a modified form of self-interest.

    From the philanthropic perspective, I would recommend the testimony of Aquinas, to which Prof. Caesar alludes but doesn’t share. Aquinas gives gratitude its due, but also firmly places it in second-place to charity. God is not grateful but rather loving. The divine love that inflames charity precedes and rises above gratitude.

    In contrast, today we owe the praise of gratitude more to the Protestant (especially Calvinist) tradition, which emphasizes man’s depraved condition and distance from God and God’s love. Hand-in-hand with modern political philosophy, this tradition curiously helps make sense of many of gratitude’s defenders and critics.

    Keith Whitaker

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