“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility


My favorite aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday is its celebration of gratitude.  In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Gratitude is a natural and positive human emotion.  Expression of gratitude promotes health, happiness, and social harmony.

Of late, and especially since the release of the 2000 film Pay it Forward, the idea of “paying it forward” – repayment of a debt to a third party rather than to one’s true creditor – has taken hold in popular culture.

I would like to argue that “paying it forward” is an illogical and immoral misdirection of gratitude that shortchanges both creditor and debtor.  Here is a story to illustrate that point.


Jane and Stephanie are longtime friends.  They have stood up in each other’s weddings.  They share confidences.  They socialize frequently, and over the past several years they and their families have enjoyed celebrating holidays together.

Jane’s father’s health suddenly fails.  His illness requires Jane to fly on short notice across the country and to be away from home for three weeks.  During Jane’s absence, Stephanie hosts Jane’s two children for four overnights and ferries them to and from two midday dental appointments.  Stephanie and her husband drive first Jane and later Jane’s husband and children to the airport for transcontinental flights.  Throughout the ordeal, Stephanie makes herself available to speak to her friend by phone at any time day or night.  Jane calls Stephanie for support at least once a day during her absence.

After three weeks, Jane and her family return home and resume a normal routine.  Because of the support from Stephanie, Jane has navigated her family’s crisis smoothly.

A week passes.  Stephanie sees Jane from a distance on occasion – at the grocery store, at the bank – but Jane does not call.  Stephanie attributes Jane’s silence to grief.

A second week passes.  Jane calls to invite Stephanie out for lunch.  Stephanie accepts.

As they linger over coffee, Stephanie finally speaks her mind. “I’m puzzled, Jane, and frankly a little hurt.  You haven’t said a word to me about all I did for you and your children when you were with your dad.”

Jane stares back in surprise. “I paid it forward, Steph.  I’ve been running errands for my friend Amber, who’s recovering from surgery.  I figured that would balance the books.”


Why did Jane not express gratitude to Stephanie for her friendship and support at a difficult time?

(One might similarly ask why Stephanie was surprised.  How could Stephanie have been Jane’s close friend for years without having recognized Jane’s ingratitude?  By way of answer, I will observe that the human capacity for self-delusion is considerable.)

The social compact under whose terms all of us operate, consciously or otherwise, is based upon enlightened self-interest and an implicit expectation of reasonable recompense for our efforts.  Stephanie’s shock and disappointment at Jane’s failure to acknowledge her kindness and at Jane’s having resorted instead to “paying it forward” is completely understandable.

“Paying it forward” has been hailed as a virtue by some arbiters of popular culture, as though charity to strangers lies on a higher moral plane than the proper treatment of friends and family.  In effect, the “pay it forward” movement is a cynical attempt on the part of contemporary social engineers to circumvent the natural and appropriate expression of gratitude.

One might ask why.

The only way to truly balance the books between a debtor and a creditor is for the debtor to acknowledge the debt and repay it.  For a debt of gratitude, the appropriate response – and indeed the only response that feels right to both debtor and creditor – is a direct expression of thanks.

“Paying it forward” by doing good deeds for others is no repayment at all.


Quote for Today

There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed.  If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude.  – Robert Brault


This is the second in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’


6 thoughts on ““Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility

  1. Sometimes the debt is too much to repay and that puts the receiver in an uncomfortable/lesser position. Whereas they were close friends before on the same level and therefore more accessible to each other the outstanding indebtedness does not allow for any cognitive dissonance to accommodate it. The result is discomfort in the relationship that may not find easy resolution…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your thought experiment is well thought out. You include relevant details and two viable moral assumptions conflicting with one another. Yet, your argument seems unconvincing for a couple of reasons.

    “You haven’t said a word to me about all I did for you and your children when you were with your dad.”

    -This comment directed from Stephanie to Jane seems to allude to a moral deficiency in the former rather than the latter. The fact that Stephanie makes it demonstrates that her motivation for helping Jane was purely the expectation of reciprocity in some future circumstances. Yet in most moral codes and systems of the world, we are encouraged or even obliged to give freely, without the slightest hope of reciprocity in the future. Furthermore, we are not to be discouraged or annoyed or upset whenever someone does not reciprocate the affection and care. Rather, we are to draw satisfaction inherently from helping another being. As a result, at least this aspect of your thought experiment is at odds with the spirit behind the concept of “Paying It Forward.”

    “There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed. If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude. – Robert Brault”

    -Here, you make it seem like the set of actions related to “paying it forward” is monolithic. That is to say, it seems that Stephanie and Jane’s interaction is the only possible way for one to “pay it forward.” Yet, this objection could be entirely eliminated by expressing gratitude verbally to the creditor and expressing gratitude behaviorally by doing something significant to help another person.


    • Thank you for your comment.

      I disagree with your assertion that Stephanie’s question implies that her sole motivation was an expectation of reciprocity. It is natural for a person to both do good for its own sake and expect gratitude in return.

      You use the expression, “we are taught,” and I would respond, “by whom? or what?” The State? Nobody who has the individual’s best interest at heart would suggest altruism as a positive approach to life.


  3. Cynthia,

    Thanks for responding. I wanted to follow up as well. I’m again going to focus on Stephanie’s comment to Jane.

    Premise 1: If Stephanie didn’t primarily care about being reimbursed for helping Jane, then she wouldn’t bring up the topic to Jane.
    Premise 2: Stephanie did, in fact, bring it up.
    Conclusion: Therefore, Stephanie primarily cared about being reimbursed for helping Jane.

    Premise 1: If Stephanie primarily cared about being reimbursed for helping Jane, then she is selfish.
    Premise 2: It is morally wrong to be selfish.
    Conclusion: Therefore, Stephanie acted in a morally wrong way by being selfish.

    Now, you are well within your epistemic liberties to disagree, but unless you can show that either the premises or the conclusions drawn are faulty, they must be logically accepted.

    Moreover, what is “natural” is not necessarily morally right or even morally permissible. What is “natural” differs from species to species, from time period to time period, and from culture to culture. There is no comprehensive and functional definition of what “natural” means.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s