Episode 76: Barbara Herman discusses gratitude

This month, we discuss gratitude with Barbara Herman, Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. Click here to listen to our conversation.

BarbaraHerman_smallIs our subject this week, well, gratuitous? Given the dearth of philosophical attention to it in the last century or two, gratitude might not seem worth studying. But our guest argues that while gratitude might not itself comprise the most weighty moral phenomenon, it can be “telltale” of moral interactions and relationships, and of their complexification in modern moral philosophy.

For instance, philosophy has long considered two poles of relationships: Relationships between intimate friends, and relationships between utter strangers. Gratitude between friends is interesting enough. If, say, you do a friend a favor, then she would normally express gratitude. For, you have done something for her without expectation of repayment. Well and good. But, in the near future, were you to similarly need a favor, your friend would seem a bit rude not to then reciprocate it. Your original favor, while at first only requiring your friend’s expression of gratitude, somehow manifests a debt of gratitude, which she needs to repay by reciprocating your favor. How can we understand this?

Moreover, consider gratitude between strangers. Matt Teichman had just such an opportunity when he was stranded, and strangers gave him a forty-five minute ride. After dropping Matt off at his destination, Matt of course expressed gratitude. But then, naturally, the strangers drove off, preëmpting Matt’s repayment of some debt of gratitude to those who did him the favor. Still, Matt, like many, was left feeling that he should do something in response to such generosity. He decided to “pay it forward” to another stranger, by giving someone else in need a ride — despite that new stranger’s never having done Matt a favor! How can we understand this?

And today, moral philosophy is considering increasingly interesting examples, for instance, of relationships with potential between those of friends and those of strangers — potential that can be influenced, crucially, by gratitude. Thankfully, Barbara Herman can help us sort all this out. Join us!

Dominic Surya






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