David Brooks [writes](http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/28/opinion/david-brooks-the-structure-of-gratitude.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region®ion=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region) today (7/28/15) about gratitude. In reading it, I learned something closely related to my constant theme of flourishing. Gratitude is a feeling or assessment one has when another has done something beyond bounds of the normal transactions. Here’s his definition: “Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.” Nice poetry, but misses the true source of gratitude.
The gist of the article is centers on two themes. One is the pleasurable sense of gratitude. The other is the general absence of the feeling in our capitalistic meritocracy.
The basic logic of the capitalist meritocracy is that you get what you pay for, that you earn what you deserve. But people with dispositional gratitude are continually struck by the fact that they are given far more than they pay for — and are much richer than they deserve. Their families, schools and summer camps put far more into them than they give back. There’s a lot of surplus goodness in daily life that can’t be explained by the logic of equal exchange.
Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures. But people with grateful dispositions are attuned to the gift economy where people are motivated by sympathy as well as self-interest. In the gift economy intention matters. We’re grateful to people who tried to do us favors even when those favors didn’t work out. In the gift economy imaginative empathy matters. We’re grateful because some people showed they care about us more than we thought they did. We’re grateful when others took an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves.
While he does discuss an important exception in today’s culture, he misses a very important point. Gratitude is the result of the caring actions of others. Without care, there would be no gratitude. It’s the absence of care that makes our form of capitalism largely devoid of human sensibilities. The idea that every action can be measured in some exchange value removes the possibility that it was done out of care, not because it was of mere economic value to the actor. I think his statement about “capitalist meritocracy” is off the point. Sure, getting only what one pays for is an important part of the context, but the absence of gratitude is primarily the result of seeing humans only as economic engines.
By taking the passive stance, that is from the recipient of care, as his perspective, Brooks’s critique here lacks punch. I guess he is trying to zing capitalism, but does so with much too limp a flail. It is not capitalism that is the culprit; it is the model of human being. He is trapped in the same chicken and egg mentality that keeps the US and an increasing number of me-too nations stuck in an unsustainable cycle. Brooks argues that it is capitalism that creates the self-centered, instrumental human.
We live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall apart if not for another economy, one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence celebrated.
I think he has it backwards. It is our specific belief about human nature that is the source of our individualism, utilitarianism, ambition, and pride (and many other character traits that stand in the way of flourishing). The institutions of present-day capitalism came later, built upon these beliefs. Adam Smith posited market efficiency, based on human self-interest, not the other way around. I often call attention to an earlier tome of Smith’s where he wrote that human nature was primarily empathy, a component of care. I believe that society has already fallen apart, not a future about to happen. Unsustainability is a great indicator that the world is far from the state we would have it be. Inequality represent our failure to care for others.
Caring is more than a disposition; it is a distinct way to view human beings. To the extent that it does show up in the ways Brooks and many others describe, it is a possible indicator that the caring way of human being is still around, but is strongly suppressed by the forces of modern culture. I don’t think those who act in ways that elicit responses of gratitude are merely disposed to act that way. They ARE that way. Disposition, as Brooks writes, is a kind of psychological tendency. Heidegger and other phenomenologists saw caring as the ontological structure that makes humans distinct from other species.
If this is so, you might ask, “So then why is the modern world full of such self-centered humans?” Brooks explains, “Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures.” Wrong! Capitalism doesn’t do anything of the sort. Capitalism is simply a description of the political economy. We “see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures” because our deeply embedded belief structure tells us that. Our beliefs are what convert meaningless phenomena into meaningful concepts that, in turn, enable us to create the intentional, purposeful, normative culture in which we live out our lives. How society operates is the subject of sociologists who have created many models to explain it, just as economists do for a part of it.
One of the models that I find most powerful in both explaining cultures or societies and also in designing them is Anthony Giddens’s structuration model. Its key feature is the dialectical-like interplay among four distinctive elements; beliefs, norms, power, and technology. A society stabilizes over time around a fixed collection of these elements, but, as any of the four change, the others may also change, resulting in new societal structure and concomitant behavior. Capitalism is usually seen as a particular arrangement of the last three. The beliefs on which the structure of power, norms, and technology tend to fade from view, available only to critical examination. I am certainly not an expert on economic history or sociology, but I have read extensively and strongly believe that it was those beliefs about the nature of humans and the world in which we exist that powered the engine of modern cultural development that, in turn, gave us the kind of normal humans that Brooks calls to task. Rather that being inherent traits, all the features Brooks mentioned could just as easily be descriptions of normal behaviors.
To get a society of caring individuals, we first have to believe that that is our deep-seated way of being. It is more than a psychological disposition. The idea of the self-interested human was the product of thought by some very clever thinkers three to four hundred years ago. Coupled with a burst of technological innovation, it created the modern, industrial West. And though we have more of everything material today, we are still far from the promised state these same thinkers envisioned. Brooks fails to dig deep enough to find the right openings to such a future. He is, as the last quoted paragraph conveys, stuck in instrumental economic thinking, using the words of economists and psychologists, rather than those of philosophers and brain scientists.