← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Running A-Fowl of the Law: On Presidential Turkey Pardons

photograph of turkey at White House pardoning event

Among the President of the United States’s powers is the pardon, the “unlimited” ability to grant clemency for federal criminal offenses. This clemency can take two forms. First, a commutation or reduction of the punishment for one convicted of a federal crime. Second, forgiveness of transgressions. This eliminates the punishment that has or would have been assigned for an offense. When someone refers to a “pardon” they typically mean the latter form of clemency. According to U.S. case law as of Burdick v. United States, accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt for one’s offenses, hence why pardons differ from immunity. Typically, at least in recent administrations, presidents utilize the pardoning power near the end of their term – 84% of Donald Trump’s, 61% of Barack Obama’s, 56% of Bill Clinton’s and 49% of George H.W. Bush’s pardons came during their final year of office.

However, there is one pardon which now occurs annually. Throughout the history of the United States, presidents often received turkeys as gifts. Usually, these birds were slaughtered and eaten with holiday dinners. The first to spare one was Abraham Lincoln at the insistence of his son Thomas or “Tad.” This turkey gifting evolved into the “National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation” during Harry Truman’s administration. Occasionally, presidents would spare the turkeys presented to them, either returning them to the farm or sending them to a zoo. However, beginning with George H.W. Bush in 1989, the ceremony evolved to include the president pardoning the gift turkeys, sparing them from serving as Thanksgiving dinner. At the time of my writing on the afternoon of November 20th, President Joe Biden pardoned the turkeys Liberty and Bell just a few hours ago.

Obviously, the ceremony is for fun. Presidents regularly use the occasion to make (groan-inducing) jokes to the press. For instance, in 2022 following better than anticipated mid-term elections for the Democrats, Biden’s quips included remarks that the ballot boxes were not “stuffed,” that there was no “fowl play” and the only “red wave” would be if his dog knocked over the cranberry sauce.

But ceremonies, even when unserious, often reveal something about our underlying attitudes and beliefs. The traditional presidential turkey pardon, for instance, may be working to assuage some tense feelings about our nonchalance in making a cooked bird the centerpiece of our holiday gatherings. Sure, about 45 million turkeys are killed each year to produce Thanksgiving dinner, but at least these two turkeys aren’t!

Given the evolution of the presidential turkey pardon, it might be worth investigating what else could be going on here. What other symbolism is behind this act? Recall that accepting a pardon, at least according to current case law in the United States, is an admission of guilt. So, by extending pardons to turkeys each year, the sitting president seems to imply that the birds have committed some kind of offense. Further still, the apparent punishment for this crime is death, given that turkeys pardoned each year are spared from slaughter.

What exactly is the offense for which the birds are being pardoned? Well, the pardon is just a ceremony – there is no paperwork and it does not count in the tally of a president’s pardons. So, we should not search through U.S. code to find the precise law that turkeys violate each year. Further, the turkeys are not wrong-doers in the same way that human offenders are.

Perhaps we can clarify something about the “offense” by considering how the pardoned turkeys are selected. The turkeys typically come from the farm of the current chairperson of the National Turkey Federation. In this case, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Liberty and Bell were chosen due to their extroverted nature. Thus, it seems somewhat arbitrary which turkeys get selected – there is a dash of practical consideration but it is otherwise essentially random. So, it appears that whatever “offense” the pardoned turkeys commit must be one that all members of the species share.

Notice, further, what the use of the term pardon implies about the turkeys given to the president during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. When pardoned the turkeys are spared from slaughter. Thus, death seems to be a punishment according to the pretense of the ceremony. But why is execution an appropriate response to whatever offense that all domestic turkeys commit? And, further, what is gained by pardoning some of the turkeys?

To answer this question, we must consider some potential ways of justifying punishment. Presumably, a pardon is justified in cases where the justification of punishment does not hold. Some justifications of punishment are consequentialist in nature. They look forward and assess what will happen if punishment occurs. The idea being that, if it produces better consequences in the future, then punishment is appropriate. By contrast, a pardon would be justified when it would produce better consequences.

For instance, consider Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. When delivering his decision to the nation, Ford explained that he felt it would significantly damage the nation to witness what would certainly be a long and rigorously reported prosecution of a former president, stating that “My concern is the immediate future of this great country.” Thus, on Ford’s rationale, a pardon was justified because punishment in this case would produce worse consequences.

What follows if we accept turkey pardons on consequentialist grounds? Well, it implies that it is better, all things considered, that these particular turkeys are not slaughtered. Recall that the selection of turkeys pardoned is effectively random. Thus, the consequentialist justification of presidential turkey pardons seems to imply that, for any given domestic turkey, it would be better all things considered to spare that turkey from slaughter. But if we accept this justification of the presidential turkey pardon, then Thanksgiving, for most, is in moral peril – the process required to produce the centerpiece of their meal, all things considered, produces worse outcomes.

However, punishments may also be justified on retributivist grounds. Retributivist justifications of punishment instead look backwards at the past behavior to assess the appropriateness of punishment. Typically, retributivists believe that punishment is justified when it is a matter of desert, in other words, that the offender deserves to be punished. So, on this justification of punishment, a pardon is appropriate when our treatment of the offender fails to fit the crime.

Suppose we accept the retributivist justification of a pardon in the case of turkeys. What does this reveal? Well, recall again that the turkeys punished are selected on an arbitrary basis. The only factors in play are the appearance, temperament, and home farm of the turkeys. None seems like a morally relevant factor when determining if an individual deserves punishment. Thus, much like with the consequentialist judgment, the pardoned turkeys are as good as any other turkey in terms of desert; if they do not deserve the punishment of death, as per their pardoning, then seemingly no other turkey deserves it either.

Ultimately, analysis of the turkey pardons leaves the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in an uncomfortable position. According to the inner logic of pardoning, it appears that the slaughter of any particular turkey is unjustified. If sparing Liberty and Bell produces better consequences or avoids an unjust desert, then it seems this reasoning should hold true for every turkey – what’s good for the two is good for the 45 million.

Of course, one might charge that I’ve taken this ceremony far too seriously. It’s just some quirky fun to kick off the holiday season! The president is not actually pardoning a turkey, and to analyze the situation as though they were misconstrues what’s really happening.

But even unserious ceremonies – especially those which occur annually in the full view of a nation – deserve analysis. Presidents did not always spare their gift turkey, nor was the act always ceremonial, nor was the act always framed as a pardon. The increasing spectacle, coverage, and linking of this observance to the powers of the office of the president invites us to seriously consider the message it sends, lest we uphold traditions that send the wrong message.

The Vice of Ingratitude; or, How I’m Bad at Thanksgiving

photograph of set table for autumn harvest

While growing up, my family took part in a fairly standard thanksgiving tradition. We would all go around the table and each say something that we are thankful for.

I was bad at this tradition. Partly, that was because I was bad at vulnerability. To deflect from saying anything too deep, I’d normally give half joking answers. For example, one year I said I was grateful for ‘literacy.’ Now, in one sense ‘literacy’ is actually a good answer. It’s a wonderful thing that we often don’t stop to notice and appreciate. But even if it’s a ‘clever’ answer, it was also a dodge from revealing any real emotional depth.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at vulnerability. But I still struggle with gratitude more broadly. Indeed, the three vices I struggle with most are vainglory, ingratitude, and cowardice. I’ve written before on vainglory, and — with Thanksgiving fast approaching — it’s time to wrestle with ingratitude.

To home in on my struggles with gratitude, we first need to understand that there was a second problem with my answer of ‘literacy.’ To see the problem, we need to understand what gratitude is.

Defining Gratitude

The word ‘gratitude’ is used somewhat ambiguously in modern English. Sometimes we use words like ‘grateful’ and ‘thankful’ when we mean something like the word ‘glad.’ If I say:

“I’m thankful it didn’t rain during my wedding.”

I’m really saying something like:

“I’m glad it didn’t rain during my wedding.”

I’m basically saying that I’m pleased by the course of events. But gladness is different from gratitude. I am glad FOR something, but I’m grateful TO someone FOR something.

In gladness there are two parts of the relationship. (1) The person who is glad, and (2) what they are glad for. In contrast, in gratitude there are three parts of the relationship. (1) The person who is grateful, (2) the person (or persons) they are grateful to, (3) and what they are grateful for. Philosophers say that gladness is a “dyadic relation” (a relation between two elements) whereas gratitude is a “triadic relation” (a relation between three elements).

And this was the deep problem with my answer of ‘literacy.’ I was not grateful that I could read and write, rather I was glad that I could read and write. People would ask me the question “what are you thankful for?” but I would instead answer the question “what are you glad for?”

If I’d really wanted to express gratitude, I should have said something like:

“I’m grateful to my teachers and parents for helping me learn to read.”

Saying “I’m grateful for my job” is an expression of gladness. Saying “I’m grateful to my boss for keeping me on even after that mistake I made last December” is an expression of gratitude.

Gratitude Looks Outward

Often, when people try to list the things that they are thankful for, they instead list things about which they are glad. When I googled ‘things to be thankful for’ the first list to come up included: good health, weekends, pets, laughter, sunshine, books, indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and freedom of speech.

Now, it’s possible to be grateful for these things, but I expect that for the most part we are glad of these things rather than grateful for them. I certainly am glad for modern medicine, but I don’t exactly feel ‘grateful’ to medical researchers. The truth is, I barely think about medical researchers at all, and certainly they do not leap to mind when I reflect on the wonders of modern medicine.

Similarly, I’m glad that I’m healthy and that there is laughter in the world. But I’m not grateful for such things.

The thing is, given my own philosophical commitments, I should be grateful. I shouldn’t just be glad that it didn’t rain during my wedding, I should be thankful to God that it did not rain during my wedding. This is one of the distinctive features of most theistic traditions, anytime it’s appropriate to feel glad it’s also appropriate to feel gratitude since all good things ultimately come from God (see Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, James 1:17, The Qur’an 16:53).

I could tell myself that I’m grateful to God for good health and laughter. But the truth is I’m not that grateful a person. I’m glad of those things, and I’m philosophically committed to those good things coming from God, but I struggle to feel gratitude.

I’m glad for modern medicine, and not grateful to medical researchers for modern medicine. Similarly, I’m glad for my health, and not grateful to God for my health. In both cases, I can tell that I’m predominantly glad — instead of predominantly grateful — because of how my attention gets directed. When I think about my health, my attention turns inward. I attend to my own life because I’m content with my own life.

Were I predominantly grateful — instead of predominantly glad — then my attention would be disposed to move outward. When I think about my health, my attention would naturally redirect to God and to all the people who have worked hard to help develop modern medicine. The person who is glad for their political freedoms thinks predominantly about what the freedoms mean for their own life. The person who is grateful for their political freedoms is disposed to also think about the sacrifices that others have made to bring political reform.

Gratitude as a Prosocial Emotion

Gratitude, by its very nature, draws one’s attention out of one’s self. The grateful person does not rest content in their own life but is led to think well of other people.

It is this feature of gratitude, that it directs our attention outward, that makes gratitude such an important virtue. The more you see your own goods as gifts, the more you recognize the fittingness of giving good things to others in return (c.f. Colossians 3:1-17). I expect you’ve noticed this in your own life. When someone does something kind to you, you are often inclined to do something kind for others. If you find twenty dollars on the street, that is just good fortune. But if the person in front of you pays for your twenty dollar meal, you are much more likely to pay for the person behind you in turn.

This is why gratitude leads to prosocial behavior. Studies have found that gratitude increases charitable giving, strengthens relationships, and improves the quality of work. Of course, happiness and gladness also lead to these things, but the evidence seems to suggest that directed gratitude is an especially powerful prosocial influence.

My Struggles with Gratitude

When I said I was thankful for literacy, I was not thinking about the other people who have helped me learn to read. And even now, aware of the moral importance of gratitude, I find myself more often glad than grateful.

What is the cause of this ingratitude?

Seneca, in his book On Benefits, suggests that there are three primary causes of ingratitude:

Now we must consider what it is that most makes people ungrateful: it is either an excessive regard for oneself—the deeply ingrained human failing of being impressed by oneself and one’s accomplishments—or greed or envy.

In my own case, I suspect that it’s mostly the first cause. I struggle with gratitude because I fail to appreciate just how deeply the goods of my life are owed to the free gifts of others. Intellectually¸ I can recognize that I would not have the good life I have were it not for the generosity of others. But that recognition is all on the surface, it has not seeped down ‘into my bones.’

If I’m not careful, I fall into the assumption “that I earned all that I have” or at least that what others have given me is only “what they owed me in the first place” (Adapted Quote, Seneca 26.II). To inculcate a virtue of gratitude, I need a clearer moral vision. I need to learn to more clearly and reflexively recognize all the many positive influences that others have been in my life.

The hope is that if I spend enough time noting things to be thankful for (not just noting things about which I’m glad, but actually noting the people who have done good things for me), then I’ll eventually develop the virtue of gratitude. Perhaps I’ll be able to recognize, down in my bones, the wonderful gift I have in the life I get to live.