In this post, Max Lewis (University of Helsinki) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy about the kinds of gratitude appropriate for our relationship with nature.

If someone provides you with a gift or does you a favor, you should be grateful to them for what they did. This seems undeniable. In fact, failing to be grateful to them would make you morally criticizable. But here’s a puzzle. Nature provides you with an abundance of benefits you did not earn and are not owed. This too seems undeniable. But, if you are like most people, you are not grateful to nature. You are like the boy in the classic children’s book The Giving Tree: always taking from nature, but never giving back. After all, if you were grateful, you would try to pay nature back.

Image by shameersrk from Pixabay

So, are you morally criticizable for your lack of gratitude? Fortunately, I think not. In On Gratitude to Nature, I argue that we do not owe nature any gratitude. Nonetheless, it can be appropriate to be grateful for nature in numerous ways.

What Gratitude Involves

When someone does something worthy of gratitude to them, they give you a new reason to care about them. For example, imagine you get a flat tire and you don’t know how to change it yourself. A stranger pulls over and, out of kindness, changes the tire for you. Clearly, you owe them gratitude. This means, among other things, that you should thank them, have the desire to pay them back, and come to care more about how they fare. For example, you’re more likely to help them when they are in trouble than you are to help a mere stranger in a similar situation. But this reason to increase your care for them did not exist before they stopped to help you. Nor is the reason based on the kind of value that person has.

Nature, Value, and Gratitude

So, if you should be grateful to nature, you would have a reason to care about nature that is not based on the kind of value nature has. Appealing to gratitude would allow environmentalists to argue for protecting nature without having to answer the controversial question of whether nature is intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable in itself.

Why You Don’t Owe Nature Gratitude

Nevertheless, I do not think that we owe nature any gratitude. I grant that nature provides many benefits. For example, breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, materials for building shelter, and an ideal setting for many recreational activities. But, it lacks something essential for being the proper object of gratitude. On a classic account of gratitude due to philosopher P.F. Strawson, gratitude is only owed in response to being shown a certain degree of goodwill or care. In order to manifest such goodwill, nature would need to have evaluative attitudes like care or concern about us. That is, it would need to be able to treat us or our well-being as a reason for providing us with the benefits it provides. It is the manifestation of such care that provides us with a new reason to care about those who benefit us. That is, a reason that is independent of the benefactor’s pre-existing value. But, nature does not care about us and cannot treat our well-being as a reason to benefit us. In fact, nature is utterly indifferent to us and our well-being. So, we do not owe nature any gratitude.

Gratitude To vs Gratitude For

Even though it’s false that we should be grateful to nature, it can still be appropriate to be grateful for nature. You can be grateful for some benefit without being grateful to anyone for providing it. Imagine that an evil doctor is trying to poison you, but accidentally injects you with a cure for a disease you have. You will be grateful for the cure, but not grateful to the evil doctor.

It is appropriate to be grateful for something when it is good for us and we did not bring it about all by ourselves. When we are grateful for something, we are responding to an already-existing reason to care about that thing.  That is, we are responding to the value of the object itself. But recall that when we are grateful to someone we are responding to the value they create when they manifest care for us.

 Gratitude and Kinds of Value

Being grateful for something involves treating it in the ways that are called for by the kind of value it has. Some things are purely instrumentally valuable. For example, think of a pair of ugly, but warm, winter boots. The right way to treat these boots is by using them, that is, wearing them. Some things are finally valuable, that is, valuable in their own right. For example, many family heirlooms have final value for individuals. The right way to treat such things is by protecting, preserving, and refusing to trade or sell them. Persons like you and I have moral value or dignity. The right way to treat us is to respect us.

Many things have multiple kinds of value simultaneously. Nature is a case in point. It has instrumental value because of the abundance of benefits it provides us. It also has aesthetic value. Just consider the awe-inspiring beauty of Yosemite Valley. For many people, parts of nature are finally valuable because they help to shape a person’s identity or contribute to the meaningfulness of their lives. Nature as a source of identity is common in both native traditions and modern environmentalism. Nature contributes to meaning in people’s lives by providing a sense of self-transcendence or belonging to something larger than oneself.

So, we do not owe nature the kind of special concern involved in being grateful to someone or something. This means that none of us is morally criticizable for failing to be grateful to nature. It also means that environmentalists cannot appeal to gratitude to argue that we should care about nature. Nonetheless, it is still appropriate for people to respond to the value that nature has by being grateful for it.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.