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Gifts, Gratitude, and Thanksgiving

Gifts, Gratitude, and Thanksgiving

5 Mins
November 1, 1999

With only a little imagination, Atlas Shrugged may be read as a tale about ingratitude. Many passages make the point, but the most instructive one occurs in the scene from which Rand's novel takes its name. The participants are Rearden and Francisco.

"When you felt proud of the rail of the John Galt Line," said Francisco . . . "[d]id you want to see it used by men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity—men such as Eddie Willers—who could never invent your Metal, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort, and—riding the rail—give a moment's silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?"

"Yes," said Rearden gently.

"Did you want to see it used by whining rotters . . . who proclaim that . . . you are not to be paid, neither in matter nor in spirit, neither by wealth nor by recognition nor by respect nor by gratitude?"

"I'd blast that rail first."

According to Atlas Shrugged , then, gratitude—the appreciative acknowledgement of a favor, by word and deed—is a matter of justice. It does not involve anything legally due to a person, but it does involve a moral debt. When an outstanding scholar receives a fellowship from a philanthropist, it is a favor, something to which the scholar has no prior claim and something for which he therefore owes the philanthropist gratitude.


Conversely, to expect gratitude from those who have accepted one's favors is merely an act of justice to oneself. But what egoistic reasons exist for bestowing favors in the first place?

In Unrugged Individualism, David Kelley offered several moral motives for generosity, the chief one being that it is "a kind of investment. One gives something to a person, not because he deserves it now, but because one senses that some long-range good may come of it." A second motive, I suggest, is the quasi-aesthetic pleasure of being able to observe a world that more nearly embodies his own values: a world in which the people one likes and admires succeed more rapidly than they otherwise could, or to a greater extent than they otherwise could. In both of these cases, the egoistic value of the benefaction is enhanced through the medium of visibility when the recipients express appropriate gratitude,


Because Objectivists sometimes have trouble justifying the bestowal of gifts, they also have trouble justifying the acceptance of gifts and therefore have trouble understanding the role of gratitude. The key difficulty arises from the fact that a gift is "unearned." In The Philadelphia Story, socialite Katherine Hepburn offers reporter Jimmy Stewart the use of a retreat in order to pursue his serious writing, but he rejects it with an offended air, saying that Lady Bountiful has gone out of style.

In fact, there is nothing wrong with accepting a gift one has not fully earned, so long as it is not unmerited by the standards of both the giver and recipient. For even though a gift is unearned at the time of its receipt, it can be earned thereafter through a mixture of gratitude toward the giver and appropriate use of the gift. And, Leftists to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong with owing gratitude to some Lord or Lady Bountiful.

According to Atlas Shrugged, gratitude is a matter of justice. It involves a moral debt.

Indeed, even if we refused all direct gifts, we could not avoid receiving "the unearned" in the form of positive externalities that flow from the work of others. To be sure, we ourselves create positive externalities, and we might say that our moral accounts balance on that basis, with no debt remaining to be paid in gratitude. But that is true only to an extent. Because of what Rand called the "pyramid of ability," "the men with the greatest minds and talents confer on others much more value than they ever receive in return, no matter how much wealth they acquire, [while] the least able receive much more value than they create." (David Kelley, "The Autobiography of an Idea," Navigator, February 1998, p. 7.) According to the Francisco-Rearden dialogue, the net bestowal of positive externalities serves as a considerable secondary motive for the productive acts of a great achiever, and the proper response to those acts by lesser achievers is gratitude.

"The unearned" comes to us in another form as well, and one that requires a response slightly different from gratitude. Just as we cannot fully return the benefits conferred upon us by those who inhabit the top of the pyramid of ability, so we cannot return the benefits conferred upon us by all the producers who have gone before us and who have advanced civilization in ways large and small. For some centuries now, most people in the West have earned goods and services by productive labor and free trade. In that sense, they have paid their own way. But what their labor has been able to buy has differed dramatically. And that difference is something that they have not earned. The sheer fruitfulness of today's economy as compared to the economy of the past, the sheer abundance of capital and knowledge that lies at our disposal, is not a product of our own making.

And here, I suggest, is a role for the concept of "thankfulness," which formerly meant the proper response to gifts from God or Providence. Let us secularize the concept of "thankfulness." Let us use "thankfulness" to mean "an outward expression of appreciation for all who have benefited us by advancing civilization through their achievements and philanthropy." And let us designate Thanksgiving as the day on which we express that appreciation.

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