Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Articles

Gratitude and Social Equality

Laurence Thomas

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass and her sister Eva Pitts.

L’homme veut se voir, parce qu’il est vain. Il évite de se voir, parce que étant vain il ne peut souffrir la vue de ses défauts et de ses misères.

(Man wants to see himself, because he is vain. He avoids looking at himself because, being vain, he cannot stand the sight of his faults and miseries.)—Pierre Nicole

In a society in which rights play an absolutely central role, it may nonetheless turn out that what we yearn for, more than anything else, is a person’s gratitude. Thus, recall the very poignant words of Frederick Douglass writing about slavery:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all of his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat; and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life….11xFrederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an America Slave (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

In reflecting upon this passage, one’s initial thought is that surely something other than ingratitude should have readily brought home to him the infernal character of slavery. What about the lynchings and killings, or the forced separation of families, or the sexual abuse of female slaves? Against the backdrop of these immoral acts, ingratitude hardly seems worth mentioning. But Douglass did not misspeak. Or so I shall argue.

In a word, gratitude comes from the heart, the seat of good will. By contrast, what is owed as a matter of rights, certainly in the case of legal rights, can be extracted from the other by force. The late U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called out the National Guard to force the integration of the University of Mississippi. Whites acquiesced in the face of brute force, as blacks were finally able to exercise the moral right of equal access to state-funded education. On the day that Medger Evers was able to set foot upon the campus of Ole Miss as a student, a moral right was given institutional backing. This, of course, stands as one of the cornerstones of social progress in American race relations. Yet, there is no gainsaying the truth that it would have been so very much better if moral reflection and good will had delivered this outcome. In his masterful criticism of J. L. Austin’s theory of law, H. L. A. Hart observed that the law works in any given society because and only because most of its members believe in and firmly embrace the legal precepts of their society.22xH. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961).

Douglass never doubted whether blacks were entitled to the same inalienable and legal rights as whites. His point was that the extraordinary good will that the slaves showed in serving their masters should have generated such gratitude on the part of the slave masters towards their slaves that it alone would have caused them to acknowledge that blacks were entitled to these rights. What is more, and this is the relevance of Hart’s point, if such extraordinary good will on the part of slaves could not so move the slaveowners, then surely slavery was a most wicked institution; for then slavery had rendered whites such that nothing could really move them to take blacks seriously as equal moral beings. The genius of Douglass lies in pointing out that gratitude can serve as a most important vector of equality. My aim in this essay is to show why this is so.

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