Elevation and the positive psychology of morality

Abstract

The power of the positive moral emotions to uplift and transform people has long been known, but not by psychologists. In 1771, Thomas Jefferson's friend Robert Skipwith wrote to him asking for advice on what books to buy for his library, and for his own education. Jefferson sent back a long list of titles in history, philosophy, and natural science. But in addition to these obviously educational works, Jefferson advised the inclusion of some works of fiction. Jefferson justified this advice by pointing to the beneficial emotional effects of great fiction: [E]very thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any... act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise.

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