Duly Noted

Confession of St. Peter

When the Cleveland / Los Angeles / Anaheim / St. Louis / Los Angeles Rams eliminated the Dallas Cowboys from Super Bowl contention, the holiday season officially closed in Texas. (It ran a couple of weeks longer than usual this year.) The presents have been opened, the roast beast carved and devoured, families kissed goodbye and sent on their way, the New Year rung in, bowl games watched, black eyed peas eaten, and the Christmas tree taken down (O happy day!). Then, ready to settle down for a pleasant Sunday afternoon of napping through playoff games we care little about, someone (or something) taps us on the shoulder. It’s that most unwelcome visitor, the ghost of Christmas lingering we’ll call him, pointing his bony finger at the new pen and box of note cards on your desk. It’s time to write those thank-you notes.

There are apparently people who enjoy writing thank-you notes. I’ve never met one, and I’m not sure what I would think of them if I did. I fear that I would find them a bit too dourly perfect: Mary Poppins without the sense of humor. But C.S. Lewis, for one – someone decidedly not lacking in a sense of humor — was reputed not only to enjoy it, but to write immensely gracious, funny, and creative notes. He once thanked a friend who regularly sent him gifts of food with a note saying “If the apparently unceasing flow of your generosity continues, I shall, in common gratitude, have to put a placard on my back stating that “This body has been reconstituted entirely by the generosity of Edward A. Allen, Esq., of Westfield, Mass., USA.” (If one writes like that, why wouldn’t one enjoy it?) Nevertheless, the note-writing task must be underappreciated, else we would not need the constant urging.

Indeed, I suspect that many people feel ambivalent about receiving thank-you notes also. They remind us that we haven’t written our own, or they make us feel morally inferior to the writer, or, worst of all, they make us feel morally superior because we, after all, would never rush our thank-you notes out just to prove how practically perfect we were. (Note: I got any number of thank-you-notes already, all of which were well-written and thoughtful. I enjoyed reading them all. This exception only proves that I am blessed with unusually gracious family and friends.) So, why bother?

Not surprisingly, the Internet abounds with opinions on that topic. Those opinions, although varying in detail, are surprisingly consistent: writing thank-you notes is good for you. Time Magazine says that expressing gratitude promotes mental health. Any number of articles claim that thank-you notes are a good networking tool. Several science magazines report that expressing gratitude helps you sleep better. Of course, we always have the avaricious hope that a well-written thank-you note will lead to a better gift next year. I saw no articles connecting thank-you notes with lower cholesterol or better gas mileage, but I may not have looked hard enough.

In other words, these bits make a practical argument for the practice of writing notes. This strikes me as a small example of a much larger, and decidedly less than happy, cultural phenomenon. Today, it seems that we must justify everything on a cost – benefit basis, whether it be the magical properties of eating something unpleasant (kale) or of something pleasant but vaguely decadent (eating chocolate or drinking wine): of completing a triathlon, or taking a nap.

In the grand scale of things, this trend is relatively recent (say, the last 200 years.) The most obvious answer to why to write thank you notes is that we’re supposed to write them. This, in fact, exemplifies the first grand ethical theory, ethics according to rules, the Emily Post view as it were. The technical term for rules-based ethics is deontology. Immanuel Kant, whose goal was nothing less than making a science of ethics, brought deontology to its theoretical height. Kant sought to formulate “categorical imperatives,” what would be true always for everyone in all circumstances, and from which specific rules would flow logically. Most of us, I suspect, tend at first blush to think of ethics in a deontological light. Lying is wrong. Why? Because everyone knows lying is wrong. There’s a rule against it. More importantly, one doesn’t lie, even if some good might result from it.

However, beginning sometime near the turn of the 19th Century, philosophers began to think differently about ethics, and even more so about law and politics. We started to wonder whether the morality of an action shouldn’t be judged by its effects, rather than by its alignment with some pre-existent rules. We call this view of ethics (there are several variations) utilitarianism. Actions, or policies, or law are judged not by their morality per se, but by their consequences. An action is morally good if, and only if, the sum of happiness for all persons increases as a result: happiness in this instance being the increase of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Questions of right or wrong, including questions of natural human rights, were irrelevant or even meaningless. Jeremy Bentham, one of utilitarianism’s fathers, called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.”  Utilitarianism quickly developed a jurisprudential affiliate: legal positivism, which held that moral questions meant nothing to the development of laws. This was no idle theory. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a full-blooded legal positivist, and legal positivism (in various forms) would be considered the dominant philosophy in American law schools today.

Utilitarianism does have a first-blush, instinctive appeal. Why shouldn’t we seek to promote overall happiness? Well, of course we should, but not, most of us would say, at the expense of crossing certain lines. Taken seriously, utilitarianism would allow us to, for example, torture a three-year-old girl in front of her terrorist father, in hopes that he will reveal which rush-hour train carries the bomb. Most of us, I think, would find that revolting, but utilitarianism taken seriously simply calculates the girl’s pain against the suffering to be avoided by finding the bomb. Arguments for things like torture are always utilitarian. (There are other problems with utilitarianism, starting with the fact that it would be impossible to calculate all the worldwide consequences of any action, but those need not detain us.)

Utilitarianism has taken such hold on us that we don’t realize that it is only one way of looking at things. Most of the arguments for enhanced border security and immigration controls, for instance, are utilitarian arguments. If we separate families, treat all refugees as presumptively dangerous, and so forth, we will be safer, and less safe if we don’t. Now, those propositions strike me as inherently dubious, in some cases laughably (or maddeningly) so. It seems to me that if a family manages to walk a thousand miles or so across desert, through jungles, and over mountains, dodging drug dealers, human traffickers, vipers, scorpions, lions, tigers, and bears, we should tell them “welcome to America,” give them a Green Card and a room at the Holiday Inn, and admit their children to honors classes.  Some may disagree. My point, however, is that there are certain things we should not do even if those things make us safer. Waterboarding, and putting children in cages, are among them. (When, as we celebrate today, St. Peter confessed Jesus as Lord, it didn’t quite lead to a cushy vicarage complete with pension for him. Very un-utilitarian move – in the short run – that turned out to be.)

Admittedly, we do have a body of rules, a deontological overlay as it were, on our utilitarian politics. I refer, of course, to the United States Constitution. There are certain things we can’t do even if they would be effective and convenient. The government can’t take your house away from you, no matter how badly it needs the house, without paying you for it, and without giving you your day in court. But many, if not most, constitutional protections are procedural: the government can ultimately get what it wants, if it gives you due process. We can detain terrorism suspects or undocumented aliens indefinitely, so long as we have some process that will lead to a hearing in the fullness of time. The substantive provisions of the Bill of Rights, such as the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, can be frightfully difficult to apply in individual cases.

So, if rules-based ethics went out with the rotary phone, and utilitarian weltanschauung could be “hurts so good,” what alternatives exist? Well, there is one – virtue ethics — which provides the best answer to the thank-you note question, and more. Why should we write thank-you notes? Because that’s what good people do. Virtue ethics depend neither on rules nor results. How it works is simple to articulate (but difficult to apply): First, conceive of a virtuous person, someone that holds the standard agreed-upon virtues: courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance (to which the church would add faith, hope and charity.) Second, when confronted with a moral dilemma, do what the virtuous person would have done. Third, repeat. That’s it. A virtuous person writes his thank-you notes not because his grandmother told him to, and not because it will improve his own life or the recipient’s. He writes his thank-you notes because virtuous people are grateful and charitable, and that’s what grateful and charitable people do. Chesterton, like Lewis a drop-out from the Academy of Doleful Studies, said that “gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult.” Absolutely, if we regard gratitude as a duty (witness the unwritten thank-yous.) But if gratitude is a quality, and Chesterton, who wrote compulsively about gratitude, clearly had it, expressing it comes naturally.

Virtue ethics make a lousy foundation for law or social policy. Law may be good at changing or regulating behavior, but not so much at changing attitudes. Law may force us to tolerate things we don’t like, but it doesn’t make us more tolerant; probably less so, if anything. Fortunately, in theory, virtue makes law less necessary. Unfortunately, we seem to be sorely in need of a virtue injection, and the vaccine is in short supply. We don’t need more police action on the border, trying to wall out the specters of some politician’s nightmarish projections. We need to be more courageous. We don’t need to shut down the government because we think our solution to border security is the one great solution guaranteed to make us all safe. We need to be wiser and more just, to our political opponents and to our neighbors. Perhaps we should try, for a change, being grateful, rather than fearful or resentful, that we live in a country that other people want to get into.

Lewis said that expressing gratitude was “inner health made audible.” So, with all due respect to Polonius (a dedicated deontologist), neither a Kantian nor a Benthamite be. Be known by your fruits, for, as Matthew tells us, it is by your fruits that you shall be known. And you really ought to write those thank-you notes; it will do you good.

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