The Moral Emotions

Jonathan Haidt

University of Virginia

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Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.),

Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.(pp. 852-870).


Copyright 2003 Oxford University Press


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Research on morality has traditionally focused on moral reasoning. Research on the moral emotions has traditionally focused on only two emotions: guilt, and sympathy. But beginning in the 1980's a "moral-emotional correction" began. As research on additional moral emotions increased, theorizing about morality shifted away from reasoning and towards a greater emphasis on the moral emotions. Four families of moral emotions are discussed: the other-condemning family (contempt, anger, and disgust), the self-conscious family (shame, embarrassment, and guilt), the other-suffering family (compassion), and the other-praising family (gratitude and elevation). For each emotion, the elicitors and action tendencies that make it a moral emotion are discussed.

The Moral Emotions

Morality dignifies and elevates. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God said "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" (Genesis, III, 22). In many of the world's religious traditions, the good go up, to heaven or a higher rebirth, while the bad go down, to hell or a lower rebirth. Even for secular folk, moral motives are spoken of as the "highest" and "noblest" motives, while greed and lust are regarded as "baser" or "lower" instincts. Morality is therefore like the temple on the hill of human nature: it is our most sacred attribute, a trait that is often said to separate us from other animals and bring us closer to God.

For 2,400 years, the temple has been occupied by the high priests of reason. Plato presented a model of a divided self in which reason, firmly ensconced in the head, rules over the passions, which rumble around in the chest and stomach (Timaeus, 69). Aristotle had a similar conception of reason as the wise master and emotion as the foolish slave: "anger seems to listen to reason, but to hear wrong, like hasty servants, who run off before they have heard everything their master tells them, and fail to do what they were ordered, or like dogs, which bark as soon as there is a knock without waiting to see if the visitor is a friend" (Ethics, 1149a). Throughout the long history of moral philosophy, the focus has generally been on moral reasoning, while the moral emotions have been regarded with some suspicion (Solomon, 1993).

Even when moral psychology finally separated itself from moral philosophy and began to make its own empirical contributions, it invested almost all of its capital in the study of moral reasoning. Piaget (1932/1965) studied the child's developing understanding of fairness and rules. Kohlberg (1969; Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983) built on Piaget to provide both a measurement tool and a conceptual framework for the study of moral reasoning, and the field grew rapidly. Kohlberg's work was an important part of the cognitive revolution, demonstrating that morality, like language, could be studied as a system of transformations of underlying cognitive constructs.

Yet as the cognitive revolution matured, there was a growing recognition of the need for a parallel "affect revolution"(Tomkins, 1981). Table 1 shows that this revolution has indeed taken place, for the moral emotions have been growth stocks in the 1980's and 1990's. While the output of journal articles on morality and moral reasoning rose in the 1980's and then began to decline in the 1990's, the number of articles on emotion in general, and on the moral emotions in particular, has increased greatly. Table 1 shows that the "old academy" stocks of empathy and guilt, which were the most widely studied moral emotions in the 1970's, have not grown in the 1990's, while the "new academy" stocks of anger, shame, and disgust have racked up impressive gains in scholarship. As research on the moral emotions has broadened beyond empathy and guilt there has been a new appreciation of what they as a group can do. A few theorists have even begun to claim that the emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality, and that moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as the high priest (Haidt, 2000b; Wilson, 1993). The present paper is a report from the hill, including a census of the moral emotions and a discussion of the ways that moral emotions and moral reasoning work together in the creation of human morality.

What is a Moral Emotion?

How can we identify the subset of emotions that should be called moral emotions? One approach would be first to define morality, and then to say that the moral emotions are the emotions that respond to moral violations, or that motivate moral behavior. Attempts to define morality have long been made by philosophers, who have generally taken one of two approaches (Gewirth, 1984). The first approach is to specify the formal conditions that make a statement a moral statement (e.g., that it is prescriptive, it is universalizable, and it overrides non-moral concerns, such as expedience; Hare, 1981). The second approach is to specify the material conditions of a moral issue, for example, that moral rules and judgments "must bear on the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent" (Gewirth, 1984, p.978). This second approach is more promising for psychological work, for it does not tie morality to language, thereby allowing discussions of the origins of the moral emotions in prelinguistic animals and children. The second approach suggests a preliminary definition of the moral emotions as those emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent.

In other words, all emotions are responses to perceived changes, threats, or opportunities in the world, but in most cases it is the self whose interests are directly affected by these events. It is presumably because quick and reliable emotional responses were adaptive to individuals that emotions evolved in the first place (Lazarus, 1991a; Plutchik, 1980). The puzzle of the moral emotions is that Homo Sapiens, far more than any other animal, appears to devote a considerable portion of its emotional life to reacting to social events that do not directly affect the self. The main goal of this chapter is to classify and describe these emotions that go beyond the direct interests of the self.

The Two Prototypical Features of a Moral Emotion

Emotions are often analyzed into component features, such as an eliciting event, a facial expression, a physiological change, a phenomenological experience, and a motivation or action tendency (Frijda, 1986; Russell, 1991a; Scherer, 1984; Shweder, 1994). Two of these components are useful for identifying the moral emotions, for they are easily linked to the interests of society or of other people: elicitors (1), and action tendencies.

1) Disinterested elicitors. Some emotions, such as fear and happiness, occur primarily when good or bad things happen to the self. They can also occur when good or bad things happen to another person, but such reactions seem to require the self to be related to the other (as when one is happy for a friend's success), or to identify temporarily with the other (as when one fears for the protagonist in a movie). Other emotions can be triggered easily and frequently even when the self has no stake in the triggering event. Simply reading about an injustice, or seeing a photograph of a suffering child, can trigger anger or sympathy. Anger may be most frequently triggered by perceived injustices against the self, and sympathy may be most strongly felt for one's kin, but the point here is that some emotions are easily triggered by triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions that do not directly touch the self, while other emotions are not. The more an emotion tends to be triggered by such disinterested elicitors, the more it can be considered a prototypical moral emotion.

2) Prosocial action tendencies. Emotions generally motivate some sort of action as a response to the eliciting event. The action is often not taken, but the emotion puts the person into a motivational and cognitive state in which there is an increased tendency to engage in certain goal-related actions (e.g., revenge, affiliation, comforting, etc). These action tendencies (Frijda, 1986) can be ranked by the degree to which they either benefit others, or else uphold or benefit the social order.

Crossing these two criteria creates a two dimensional space (Figure 1), in which the X axis shows the degree to which an emotion can be elicited by situations that do not directly harm or benefit the self and the Y axis shows the degree to which an emotion's action tendencies are prosocial. The most prototypical moral emotions (elevation, compassion, anger and guilt) are shown in the upper right corner. The placement of emotions in Figure 1 is highly speculative, and each reader would probably favor a different arrangment. For now Figure 1 is simply meant to illustrate that there is no neat division between the moral emotions and the non-moral emotions. Each emotion and its many variants can partake to a greater or lesser degree in each of the two features that make an emotion a moral emotion. Anger, for example, is shown in the upper right corner because in its "best case" scenario it can be felt in disinterested situations, with highly prosocial action tendencies. In other cases, however (e.g., violent rage triggered by sexual frustration), anger could be placed in the lower left, with highly self-interested appraisals and anti-social action tendencies.

Selfish Genes and Moral Emotions

It is important to note at the outset that all of the moral emotions are likely to have indirect benefits to the self. Many writers, beginning with Darwin(1874/1998), have wondered how the competition of natural selection could create altruistic individuals. Many of the current answers to this question draw on game theory (Maynard-Smith & Price, 1973), and on Trivers' (1971) ideas about the role of emotions in reciprocal altruism. The general point of these theories is that the emotions act as "commitment devices" (Frank, 1988) that force individuals to follow strategies in repeated-play games that are good for them in the long run, even if they appear non-optimal at any given moment (see also Ridley, 1996; Sober & Wilson, 1998).

So when deciding where in Figure 1 to place an emotion it is not relevant that the emotion confers long-term benefits on its bearers. A more relevant heuristic is to imagine a perfectly selfish creature, the mythical Homo Economicus(2), who cares only about her own well-being, and who cooperates with others only to the extent that she expects a positive net payoff from the transaction. Homo Economicus may experience negative affect when some resource is taken away from her, but she would only retaliate if she thought that the benefits of retaliation outweighed the costs. And she would have no affective reactions when good or bad things happened to other people. An alternative definition of the moral emotions can therefore be stated as the difference between the emotional life of Homo Sapiens and the emotional life of Homo Economicus (or of a psychopath, whom Homo Economicus resembles; Cleckley, 1955).

Emotion Families

There has been a heated debate about whether there is a set of "basic" emotions (Ekman, 1992, 1994; Izard, 1977; Tomkins, 1962, 1963), or whether emotions should be thought of as scripts or sets of components that can be mixed and matched, allowing for a very large number of possible emotions (Russell, 1991; Shweder, 1994; Wierzbicka, 1992 ). However even those who argue for a small set of basic emotions acknowledge that each emotion comes in many different types or variants. Ekman (1992) calls the set of all such variants around a basic theme an emotion "family." For example, indignation, irritation, and rage are not identical in their eliciting conditions, action tendencies, or facial expressions, but they are somewhat similar, just as siblings are both similar and different in their physical appearance. The present paper therefore adopts the emotion family perspective, but takes it one step further by discussing extended families, such as the traditional Indian family. In a traditional Indian joint-family household, several brothers and their wives and children live together, often with each sub-family in an adjoining hut, within a single compound. Using the Indian joint-family as a metaphor for emotion families, the principal moral emotions can be divided into two large and two small joint-families. The large families are the "other-condemning" family, in which the three brothers are contempt, anger, and disgust (and their many children, such as indignation and loathing), and the "self-conscious" family (shame, embarrassment, and guilt; see Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999 for an earlier discussion of these two families). The two smaller families will be called the "other-suffering" family (compassion), and the "other-praising" family (gratitude and elevation). The rest of this essay presents brief biographies of these four families. The biographies are highly abridged, focusing on the eliciting conditions and action tendencies that make each emotion a moral emotion.

An important theme of this chapter will be that most of the emotions reviewed have cognitively simpler forms or precursors that can be seen in infants and in other animals. In most cases these simple forms do not qualify as moral emotions. It will be suggested that one reason the moral emotions have not been given their due in research on morality is that the overzealous pursuit of parsimony has led many researchers to focus on the simplest forms of each emotion, rather than on the more complex variants upon which human morality depends.

A second theme of this chapter will be that the moral emotions are simultaneously pan-human products of evolution and cultural scripts that are shaped by local values and meanings. The four joint-families of emotion can be found in all cultures, but differences in some of the components of emotional experience lead to slightly different sets of children inhabiting the corresponding households in different cultures (Ellsworth, 1994; Mesquita, Frijda, & Scherer, 1997; Shweder & Haidt, 2000).

A third theme of this chapter is that there is more to morality than altruism and niceness. Emotions that motivate helping behavior are easy to label as moral emotions, but emotions that lead to ostracism, shaming, and murderous vengeance are no less a part of our moral nature. The human social world is a miraculous and tenuous co-construction of its participants, and any emotion that leads people to care about that world, and to support, enforce, or improve its integrity should be considered a moral emotion, even when the actions taken are not "nice."

The Other-Condemning Emotions: Contempt, Anger, and Disgust

Evolutionary theorists who have searched for the origins of human morality have generally found its source in the dynamics and difficulties of reciprocal altruism (de Waal, 1982; Frank, 1988; Ridley & Dawkins, 1981; Trivers, 1971). Many social species, from vampire bats to chimpanzees, have figured out the "trick" of playing tit-for-tat within dyads, such that cooperating pairs end up reaping more benefits than either member would on its own (Wilkinson, 1984; Axelrod, 1984). Reciprocal altruism can only work, however, as a two-edged sword: individuals must be built with a motivation to cooperate with those who have cooperated in the past, but they must also be built with a motivation to avoid or to actively punish those who have tried to cheat or exploit them (Trivers, 1971).

Most social animals, however, are doomed to size up interaction partners by themselves. If vampire bat A fails to share a blood meal with vampire bat B, after bat B shared with bat A, bat B does not go around to bats C, D, and E to warn them away from future interactions with bat A. Among human beings, however, this is exactly what happens. Language and highly developed social-cognitive abilities allow human beings to keep track of the reputations of hundreds of individuals (Dunbar, 1996). In endless hours of gossip people work together to catch cheaters, liars, hypocrites, and others who are trying to fake the appearance of being reliable interaction partners. Human beings, then, live in a rich moral world of reputations and third-party concerns. We care what people do to each other, and we readily develop negative feelings towards individuals with whom we have never interacted. It is these negative feelings about the actions or character of others that unites the "other-condemning" emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust.


Anger is perhaps the most underappreciated moral emotion. A search of PsycInfo shows that anger is usually thought of as an immoral emotion. Titles such as "Anger--the hidden destroyer" and "Controlling competitive anger among male soccer players" make anger sound like a dark primal urge that must be suppressed by cultural and educational forces. But for every spectacular display of angry violence there are many more mundane cases of people indignantly standing up for what is right, or angrily demanding justice for themselves or others (Tavris, 1982).

Elicitors. The reason anger has such a bad reputation may be that it can be seen clearly in rats, dogs, toddlers, and other creatures without a well developed moral life. In such cognitively simple creatures anger is generally said to be a response to goal blockage and frustration (Berkowitz & Heimer, 1989; Dollard & Miller, 1950; Stein, Trabasso, & Liwag, 1993). But there are other elicitors that lead to more recognizably moral responses. Aristotle linked anger with honor. He defined anger as: "an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or toward what concerns one's friends"(Rhetoric, Bk 2, Ch.2). Note that anger is not just a response to insults, in which case it would be just a guardian of self-esteem. Anger is a response to unjustified insults; and anger can be triggered on behalf of one's friends as well.

Empirical studies support and extend Aristotle's claims. In one of the first such studies, Stanley Hall (1898) collected detailed questionnaires from over 2000 people about their actual experiences of anger. While his corpus included many cases of goal blockage and frustration, even these cases generally included an appraisal that somebody else has done something for which they had no justification or right. For example, a 20 year old woman said:

The chief causes are contradiction, especially if I am right; slights, especially to my parents or friends even more than myself; to have my veracity questioned; the sight of my older brother smoking when we are poor; injustice, dislike, or hate from those who fear to speak right out; being tired and out of sorts, etc. ... Injustice is the worst and its effects last longest (p. 538).

Homo Economicus could never have given such a list. Similar findings emerge from studies by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990), Izard (1977), and Shaver et al. (1987). All three studies collected open-ended descriptions of angry episodes and found that themes of frustration and goal blockage mixed with more moral concerns about being betrayed, insulted, and treated unfairly. Similarly Scherer (1997) found that descriptions of angry episodes in a large cross-cultural study were rated by participants as eliciting the highest appraisals of unfairness and immorality, even higher than the appraisals of goal obstruction and unpleasantness.

Action tendencies. The second part of Aristotle's definition of anger adds that anger "must always be attended by a certain pleasure ­ that which arises from the expectation of revenge" (Rhetoric, Bk 2, Ch.2)." More recent studies confirm that anger generally involves a motivation to attack, humiliate, or otherwise get back at the person who is perceived as acting unfairly or immorally (Izard, 1977; Shaver et al., 1987). The fact that anger often involves a motivation for revenge has been noted in a great many cultures (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), some of which elevate blood feuds into a major cultural activity (Boehm, 1999 ; Frijda, 1994). Of course there are cultures and religions that exhort people to forswear revenge: "for it is written, vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19). However the mere fact that such exhortations must be frequently made testifies to the widespread human desire for revenge. Furthermore it is rarely noted that the New Testament tries to sell its appeal by recasting kindness as vengeance. The next line of Romans is: "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head."

The action tendency of anger may appear at first glance to be both selfish and antisocial, and in many cases it is. But the motivation to redress injustices can also be felt strongly in third-party situations, in which the self has no stake. Racism, oppression, exploitation, and ethnic cleansing can all lead people with no ties to the victimized group to demand retaliatory or compensatory action. Even fictional accounts of injustice can lead to a desire for revenge. Haidt and Sabini (2000) showed Hollywood film clips that portrayed injustice and then asked participants to rate a variety of alternative endings. Results showed that participants were unsatisfied by endings in which the victim found growth and fulfillment by accepting the loss and forgiving the transgressor. Participants were instead most satisfied by endings in which the perpetrator suffered, knew that the suffering was repayment for the transgression, suffered in a way that matched the initial transgression, and if possible suffered in a way that involved public humiliation.


The second brother in the other-condemning joint family is disgust. Like anger, disgust has simpler and more complex forms, which must be distinguished to fully appreciate its moral nature.

Elicitors. Disgust is a response both to physical objects and to social violations. Thus Darwin offered this two-part definition: Disgust "refers to something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste, as actually perceived or vividly imagined; and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell, touch, and even of eyesight" (1872/1965, p. 243). Similarly Lazarus (1991b, p.826) resorted to metaphor to unite the physical and social aspects of disgust: "taking in or standing too close to ­ metaphorically speaking ­ an indigestible object or idea." These and other definitions (Angyal, 1941; Ekman & Friesen, 1975; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Tomkins, 1963; Wierzbicka, 1992) focus on the mouth and revulsion towards physical objects, and then suggest that some class of non-physical objects can cause a similar feeling of revulsion. But it turns out that this class is extraordinarily heterogenous, ranging from incest to amputation to hypocrisy. How can we make sense of this class of elicitors, and distinguish it from the larger class of "all disliked things"?

Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (1993; 2000) offer an answer. They argue that disgust grew out of a distaste response found in other animals, which was then shaped by evolution to become a more generalized guardian of the mouth. Disgust rejects foods not principally for their sensory properties but for their ideational properties (e.g., the source of the food, or its contact history). This food-related "core disgust" appears to be only a bit-player in Western morality, showing up for example as a support of moral vegetarianism but not health vegetarianism (Rozin, Markwith, & Stoess, 1997). However core disgust was well suited as a pre-adaptation (Mayr, 1960) for a more general rejection system, easily extended to a variety of bodily actions and issues. This expanded disgust can most succinctly be described as a "guardian of the temple of the body" (Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, & Imada, 1997; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 1993), for it is triggered by people who violate local cultural rules for how to use their bodies, particularly in domains of sex, drugs, and body modification (Haidt & Hersh, in press; MacCoun, 1998). A general principle guiding this expansion in many cultures seems to be that disgust helps to draw lines that separate a group from groups or individuals that are thought to be below. Thus caste boundaries in India and racial segregation in the American South followed a disgust-like logic, in which the bodily activities of lower-status groups (eating, bathing, excreting, and even drinking from water fountains) had to be kept separate from the higher-status groups, lest the higher-status groups become contaminated. Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (1993) refer to disgust at contact with people whose mere physical presence is thought to be contaminating as "interpersonal disgust".

But the expansion of disgust elicitors did not stop there. In many cultures and languages, the words and facial expressions used to express disgust towards rotting meat or feces are also used to condemn social transgressions that do not involve the body in any physically disgusting way (Haidt et al., 1997). Miller (1997) nominates the vices of hypocrisy, betrayal, cruelty, and fawning as the principle vices that elicit disgust, rather than anger or hatred. Survey evidence supports Miller's list of disgusting vices (Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994; Rozin, Lowery, & Ebert, 1994), but also suggests that the expansion of disgust into the socio-moral domain involves different issues in different cultures (Haidt et al., 1997). For Westerners, at least, sociomoral disgust can be described most succinctly as the guardian of the lower boundary of the category of humanity. People who "de-grade" themselves, or who in extreme cases blur the boundary between humanity and animality, elicit disgust in others. Disgust is a one-way border guard, however; it is triggered by people moving down, and not by animals moving up (e.g., by a chimpanzee using sign language, or by a dog wearing human clothing).

Action tendencies. As the elicitors of disgust expanded from core disgust through sociomoral disgust, the action tendencies of disgust appear to have undergone much less change. All forms of disgust include a motivation to avoid, expel, or otherwise break off contact with the offending entity, often coupled to a motivation to wash, purify, or otherwise remove residues of any physical contact that was made with the entity (Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 1993). This motivation is clearly adaptive when dealing with potentially lethal bacterial contamination of potential foods, but it appears to have made the transition into our moral and symbolic life with surprisingly little change. Thus people want nothing to do with the clothing or other possessions of evil people, such as a sweater worn by Adolph Hitler (Rozin, Markwith, & McCauley, 1994). Furthermore, the moral taint left in physical objects is almost impossible to remove. A sweater worn by a hated person cannot be rendered wearable by washing in hot water, or even by unravelling it and re-knitting it (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994). Even books that present socially disgusting ideas are treated as a contagious threat, often labeled as "filth", banned from libraries, and in extreme cases, burned.

The action tendency of disgust is often pro-social. By ostracizing those who trigger moral disgust, people in a society set up a reward and punishment structure that acts as a strong deterrent to culturally inappropriate behaviors, particularly those involving the body. This disgust-based moral order may be disturbing to some people, particularly to political liberals and libertarians (Miller, 1997), who want to carve out a large protected zone of private behavior. Disgust has an unfortunate habit of bringing condemnation down on people for what they are, not just for what they do. Indeed, disgust is a major factor in the condemnation of homosexuals (Haidt & Hersh, in press). But as stated above, morality is not just about being nice. Attempts to ostracize and exclude homosexuals from schools, neighborhoods and jobs may be immoral by the standards of most readers of this article, but it must be acknowledged that these attempts are often morally motivated ­ that is, they are attempts to impose, defend, or rectify a particular (conservative) moral order against perceived threats (Hunter, 1991; Lakoff, 1996).


Contempt is the middle brother of the other-condemning family. It falls so squarely in between anger and disgust that it is sometimes said to be a blend of the two (Plutchik, 1980), or else it is folded into the anger family (Lazarus, 1991a). Ekman and Friesen (1975) originally considered contempt to be a variant of disgust, but they elevated it to the status of a "basic" emotion in the 1980's, based on findings that the contempt expression is widely and reliably recognized, and is distinguished both from anger and from disgust (Ekman & Friesen, 1986; Ekman & Heider, 1988). This finding has been challenged, because in several studies the contempt expression has been labeled not as contempt but as disgust (Russell, 1991b). However the most recent studies find that the source of these conflicting findings appears to be that English speakers simply do not know the meaning of the word "contempt." Studies conducted in non-English speaking nations find high rates of "correct" labeling (Haidt & Keltner, 1999; Matsumoto, 1992; Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), and studies that have asked English speakers to match the contempt expression to a story (Rosenberg & Ekman, 1995) or to make up their own potential elicitor (Haidt & Keltner, 1999) find that contempt performs about as well as the other "basic" emotions.

Elicitors. Almost all writers who discuss the causes of contempt agree that it involves looking down on someone and feeling morally superior (Ekman, 1994b; Izard, 1977). But if research on the facial expression of contempt is excluded, there is almost no other empirical research on contempt (see Table 1). Perhaps the most perceptive discussion of contempt comes from Miller (1997), who draws out the subtle ways that contempt functions to mark out and maintain distinctions of rank and prestige. In hierarchical societies, contempt towards those beneath the self is a kind of cool indifference, a statement that the other is not even worthy of strong feelings such as anger. In more egalitarian societies, however, contempt is more often elicited by the perception that another person does not measure up, either to the position that he occupies, or to the level of prestige that he claims for himself. Miller points out that in democratic societies it becomes common to feel "upward contempt," that is, the contempt of workers for bosses, of the working class for the upper class, and of non-elites for self-proclaimed elites of all sorts.

Action tendencies. Little has been written about the action tendency of contempt. Contempt is often said to be a "cool" emotion, relative to the heat of anger, or the visceral power of disgust (Izard, 1977; Darwin, 1872/1965). Contempt motivates neither attack nor withdrawal; rather it seems to cause social-cognitive changes such that the object of contempt will be treated with less warmth, respect, and consideration in future interactions (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1995). Contempt paints its victims as buffoons worthy of mockery, or as non-persons worthy of complete disregard. It therefore weakens other moral emotions, such as compassion.

The Moral Importance of the Other-condemning Emotions

The "CAD-Triad Hypothesis" (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999) proposes that the emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust (CAD) are responses to violations of Shweder's three moral codes called, respectively, the ethics of community, autonomy, and divinity (Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997). Rozin et al. found that American and Japanese participants consistently paired contempt (the word and the facial expression) with moral violations involving disrespect and violations of duty or hierarchy (the ethics of community); they paired anger with violations of rights and fairness (ethics of autonomy), and they paired disgust with violations of physical purity, such as food and sex taboos (ethics of divinity). Contempt, anger, and disgust therefore act as guardians of different portions of the moral order. People are exquisitely sensitive to the propriety of the actions of others, even when those actions do not affect themselves. Anger and disgust can be felt strongly towards people in third party situations, so they are listed in Figure 1 as involving (at least potentially) disinterested elicitors. Contempt can be felt in third-party situations, but because it is generally tied to the relative positions of the self and the object of contempt, strong contempt probably requires a larger dose of self-relevance.

As guardians of the moral order, all three emotions motivate people to change their relationships with moral violators. But only anger motivates direct action to repair the moral order and to make violators mend their ways. Anger thus can be considered the most prototypical moral emotion of the three (at least for Western cultures) followed by disgust, and lastly by contempt.

The Self-Conscious Emotions: Shame, Embarrassment, and Guilt

Once people (or earlier hominids) began reacting with contempt, anger, and disgust to social violations, it became adaptive for individuals to monitor and constrain their own behavior. People have a strong need to belong to groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and the self-conscious emotions seem designed to help people navigate the complexities of fitting in to groups without triggering the contempt, anger, and disgust of others.

There is, however, an important ambiguity about how many members there are in the family. Most Western researchers list shame, embarrassment, and guilt as the principle self-conscious emotions, along with pride as a positive opposite of shame (Lewis, 1993; Tangney & Fischer, 1995). Yet anthropologists generally report that non-western cultures see things differently. Most Asian cultures do not distinguish lexically(3) between shame and embarrassment; rather they have a single culturally central emotion that combines what appears to be shame and embarrassment, along with shyness, modesty, and social fear (Abu-Lughod, 1986; Fessler, in press; Heider, 1991; Levy, 1973; Menon & Shweder, 1994; Russell, 1991a). And in some non-Western cultures it has been suggested that guilt does not even exist, or at least that it is culturally unelaborated or "hypocognated", while shame/embarrassment is highly elaborated or "hypercognated" (Benedict, 1946; Levy, 1973).

This cultural difference makes sense once it is realized that the self-conscious emotions depend critically upon two of the most culturally variable aspects of social life: whether the self is construed as independent or as interdependent (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; see also Triandis et al., 1988), and whether the social structure is hierarchical or egalitarian (Boehm, 1999). The present article treats shame and embarrassment as discrete emotions, but suggests that the discreteness of shame and embarrassment is itself culturally variable. In cultures that have an interdependent construal of the self and a hierarchical social structure, embarrassment and shame merge together into a single emotion of tremendous moral importance, while in cultures that are egalitarian and that have an independent construal of the self, embarrassment splits off from shame as a less prototypical moral emotion.

Shame and Embarrassment

As with disgust, the key to understanding the moral nature of shame is to recognize that it has a phylogenetically older and simpler version. Fessler (in press) found that his informants in Dusun Baguk, Indonesia, used the word malu to describe two different sorts of shame-like experiences. Most cases involved the kinds of violations of norms that Westerners would recognize as shameful, but the remainder involved simply being in the presence of a high ranking person. Almost every analysis of shame-like emotions within hierarchical societies reports a similar phenomenon (see especially lajya in Orissa, India [Menon & Shweder, 1994] and hasham among the Bedouins of Egypt [Abu-Lughod, 1986]). Fessler further points out that displays of shame and pride in Dusun Baguk, as in the West, are exact opposites of each other, and are very similar to widespread mammalian displays of submission and dominance (eye contact avoided vs. sought; apparent body size decreased vs. increased; social interaction avoided vs. sought). Fessler therefore argues that there are two major forms of shame: a simpler "protoshame" that is caused simply by being in the presence of one's superiors in a dominance hierarchy, and a more cognitively complex form of shame that is triggered by violating a norm and knowing that someone else knows about the violation. Just as socio-moral disgust involves expanding the elicitors of core disgust while keeping the output of the system relatively constant, shame appears to involve a similar expansion of protoshame.

Fessler's description of protoshame closely matches Keltner's analysis of embarrassment (Keltner, 1995; Keltner & Buswell, 1997). Keltner finds numerous similarities between human embarrassment and non-human appeasement displays. The expression of embarrassment includes all of the physical signs Fessler describes for protoshame, plus a few that may be unique to embarrassment, such as a face-touch and a nervous or "silly" smile. Embarrassment is clearly related to hierarchical interactions: it is felt most easily when one is around people of higher status, and it is less likely to be experienced when one is around people of lower status (Keltner et al, 1998; Miller, 1996; and see Frijda and Mesquita, 1994, on shyness).

Putting Fessler's and Keltner's research together, the following argument can be made. There appears to be a pan-human emotional sensitivity to behaving properly, and presenting the proper "face" (Goffman, 1967), particularly when in the presence of higher ranking or prestigious members of one's group. In most human cultures the proper presentation of the self is a profoundly moral enterprise, in which one shows respect for authority and for the group. The failure to be vigilant about one's presentation brings shame and dishonor to the self and to one's (interdependent) kin, and marks one both as a poor partner for future interactions and as an appropriate target for contempt, disgust, and ostracism. In such a society the elicitors of proto-shame readily expand to include failures to follow all cultural norms, not just norms about hierarchical interaction. There is no clear separation between moral norms and social conventions (Shweder, Mahapatra, & Miller, 1987). In such a society shame (as malu, lajya, hasham, etc.) becomes the central emotion of moral regulation, and proto-shame is a variant of it that is triggered by simply being in the presence of a superior.

In modern Western societies, however, the expansion of proto-shame may follow a different path. Protoshame still begins as a regulator of how one should act, but it then expands to take on broader issues about how one should be. Westerners are charged with the task of creating a strong, competent and virtuous "true self" or "core self", a self that is defined not by its relationships to others but by its contrasts with others. Thus for Westerners, pride is generally thought to be a pleasurable emotion resulting from actions that indicate that the self is indeed good, competent, and virtuous (Lazarus, 1991a; Lewis, 1993), while shame is said to be a painful emotion that results from actions that reveal the self to be flawed or defective (Lewis, 1971).

Given this Western emphasis on the virtues of the true self it makes sense that Westerners experience shame and embarrassment as very different emotions. Western societies partially separate the moral order (issues of harm, rights, and justice) from the social order (issues of non-moral social convention, such as choices of clothing, food, and hygiene [Turiel, 1983]). Embarrassment is often reported to be felt when one violates social conventions, while shame is more typically elicited by one's own perceived violation of a moral norm (Keltner & Buswell, 1996; Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996). Embarrassment, therefore, does not cut so deeply. If a Westerner violates a social convention or botches a social presentation, it says little about his or her true self. Embarrassment episodes can therefore be quite lighthearted, with the embarrassed person smiling and witnesses laughing (Keltner & Buswell, 1997). Western shame, however, always hurts, for it draws attention to a defect in the true self. (For more on cultural variations in shame and embarrassment see Fischer, Manstead, & Mosquera, 1999; Haidt & Keltner, 1999; Kitayama, Markus, & Matsumoto, 1995; Mesquita, 2000, this volume; Triandis, 1994).

Elicitors. To summarize: Western shame is elicited by the appraisal that there is something wrong or defective with one's core self, generally due to a failure to measure up to standards of morality, aesthetics or competence (Babcock & Sabini, 1990; Keltner & Buswell, 1996; Lewis, 1971; Lewis, 1993; Tangney, et al., 1996). Western embarrassment, in contrast, is said to be elicited by appraisals that one's social identity or persona within an interaction is damaged or threatened, most commonly because one has violated a social-conventional rule, but also at times because of events beyond one's control (Goffman, 1959; Keltner & Buswell, 1997; Miller, 1996; Silver, Sabini, & Parrott, 1987). In many non-Western societies, however, any appraisal that one has violated cultural standards of behavior in front of other people, or that one is at high risk of such violations (as when one is around one's superiors), triggers a self-conscious emotion that combines shame and embarrassment.

Action tendencies. Because of their common origin in submissive behavior, shame and embarrassment have some common features in their action tendencies. They both lead people to reduce their social presence, creating a motivation to hide, withdraw, or disappear, and making movement and speech more difficult and less likely (Asendorpf 1990; Keltner & Busswell, 1987; Lewis, 1993; Miller, 1996). Such changes inhibit assertive behavior and signal that the individual recognizes that a violation has occurred, thereby reducing the likelihood of attack or further punishment from dominant others. Little has been written about the unique action tendencies of shame and embarrassment, because empirical efforts to distinguish the two emotions have primarily found differences in appraisals, phenomenology, and facial and bodily expressions (Tangney et al, 1996; Keltner & Buswell, 1997). However the principle difference seems to be that shame involves a darker and more painful urge to withdraw, which can even motivate suicide (Durkheim, 1951; Mokros, 1995). Since Western embarrassment tends to be felt in less serious situations, in which repair and restoration of face are usually possible, embarrassment seems to cause a milder and less painful urge to withdraw. Attempts at reparation are common, although they are complicated by the flustering and confusion that embarrassment causes (Keltner & Buswell, 1997).


Guilt is often confused with shame by native speakers of English, but the two emotions appear to grow out of different psychological systems. While the elicitors and displays of shame clearly link it to hierarchical interactions, the elicitors and action tendencies of guilt suggest that it grows out of communal relationships and the attachment system (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994; Tangney, 1991).

Elicitors. As the traditionally central moral emotion, guilt was said to be caused by the violation of moral rules and imperatives (Freud, 1930/1961; Lazarus, 1991), particularly if those violations caused harm or suffering to others (Hoffman, 1982a). But Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton's (1994) review and reinterpretation of the voluminous literature on guilt allows even greater specificity: guilt feelings occur overwhelmingly in the context of communal relationships (Clark and Mills, 1979; Fiske, 1991), in which one believes one has caused harm, loss, or distress to a relationship partner. Guilt is not just triggered by the appraisal that one has caused harm; it is triggered most powerfully if one's harmful action also creates a threat to one's communion with or relatedness to the victim. Guilt can be triggered in properly socialized adults even by the appraisal that one has harmed a stranger, but guilt reactions appear to be stronger and far more common in close relationships than in distant ones (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Guilt is generally distinguished from shame by its specificity. In guilt situations one appraises one's action as bad, not one's whole self (Lewis, 1993). Self-report studies of guilt invariably turn up a small number of cases of solitary guilt that do not involve relationship partners, such as guilt over breaking one's diet, or masturbating, but to the extent that these feelings involve more than simple regret, they appear to be examples of shame mislabeled as guilt.

Action tendencies. Guilt has generally been seen as a good or prototypical moral emotion because it motivates one to help one's victim, or otherwise to make up for one's transgression (Hoffman, 1982; H. B. Lewis, 1971; M. Lewis, 1993). Baumeister et al. (1994) conclude that guilt motivates people to treat their relationship partners well. Inducing guilt in one's partners is therefore a common and effective strategy people use when they feel neglected or mistreated in a valued relationship. Psychoanalysts have long maintained that guilt also creates a desire for punishment or suffering (Freud, 1930/1961), but empirical research offers little support for this claim (Baumeister et al., 1994). Rather, guilt motivates people to apologize and to confess, not as a way to debase themselves but as a way to restore or improve their relationships.

The Moral Importance of the Self-Conscious Emotions

Psychologists and educators have long recognized the moral importance of guilt; they have had more ambivalent feelings about shame, the "ugly" moral emotion (Tangney, 1991); and they have generally dismissed embarrassment as a non-moral emotion defined in part by the fact that it is a response to non-moral violations. But by the criteria used in this paper, all three emotions are important moral emotions, since their action tendencies generally make people conform to rules and uphold the social order. All three are therefore placed in the upper half of Figure 1. Guilt deserves the highest placement on the Y axis since it is the only one of the three that motivates direct helping behavior, but shame and embarrassment are probably even more important in daily life, since they are potentially at work in all public interactions. The placement of the three emotions on the X axis of Figure 1 is more problematic. If the criterion of "disinterestedness" is the capacity to feel the emotion in situations that do not involve the self, then the self-conscious emotions fare poorly, since they are almost always about the self's relations to others. But if the alternative criterion is used (the difference between the emotional life of Homo Sapiens and the emotional life of Homo Economicus) then the self-conscious emotions earn a place nearer to the right side of Figure 1. A purely self-interested creature would find reasons to restrain his behavior in cases where norm violations would lead to punishment, but he would not feel guilt over harms that only he knew about, or shame over the discovery of his own moral depravity, or even embarrassment at being caught in a lie. Indeed, the complete lack of shame, embarrassment, and guilt is one of the most salient hallmarks of the psychopath, along with the absence of sympathy (Cleckley, 1955).

The Other-Suffering Family

The oldest of the old academy moral emotions is sympathy, which was said to be the foundation of morality by Adam Smith (1759/1956), David Hume (1739/1969), and even Jean Piaget (1932/1965). All of these writers saw it as a basic fact about human nature that people feel bad when others suffer, and are sometimes moved by these feelings to help. Research on children shows that emotional reactions to the suffering of others emerge clearly in the first year of life, and that during the second year these concerns begin to motivate attempts to help the sufferer (Harris, 1989; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979). Research on other primates demonstrates that a sensitivity to the suffering of others is not just a part of human nature, it is in some form a part of chimpanzee and bonobo nature as well (de Waal, 1996).

How many emotions are there in this other-suffering family? The research literature supports a distinction between only two major constructs: distress-at-another's-distress (DAAD), and sympathy/compassion. DAAD, as its name implies, refers to the tendency for individuals to become distressed when they see or hear other individuals emit signs of distress (Batson & Shaw, 1991; Cialdini, 1991). It is present in newborn infants, who are more upset by the sounds of another infant crying than they are by equally loud non-crying sounds (Sagi & Hoffman, 1976). It is at work in studies of helping behavior, in which some people exposed to a suffering victim will take steps to escape from the victim (Cialdini, Schaller, Houlihan, Arps, Fultz, & Beaman, 1987). But DAAD is not truly an emotion. It does not have a distinctive physiology, facial expression, or action tendency, other than the general characteristics of distress (e.g., a motivation to escape the source of the distress). It should rather be thought of as an affective precursor of sympathy/compassion (Hoffman, 1982a), in the same way that distaste is an affective precursor of disgust without being an emotion itself.

The real emotion in this family is generally called "empathy" (Hoffman, 1982a). Yet empathy is in some ways an inappropriate word. It was coined by Titchener in 1909 as a translation of the German word "einfuhlung", which had been used in perceptual contexts to refer to the process of seeing an event from the inside (Batson & Shaw, 1991). Empathy researchers continue this emphasis on general perspective-taking, defining empathy as "an emotional response that stems from another's emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other's emotional state or condition" (Eisenberg, Shea, Carlo, & Knight, 1991, p. 65). Defined in this way, empathy is not an emotion at all; it is a tendency or an ability to feel whatever another person is feeling, including happiness, anger, or boredom. Some researchers have therefore tried to resurrect the older term "sympathy," defining it as a vicarious emotional reaction that is "based on the apprehension of another's emotional state or situation, which involves feelings of sorrow or concern for the other" (Eisenberg et al., 1991, p.65). But even the word sympathy, as it is defined in English language dictionaries, refers to the tendency of two things to move together, "an inclination to think or feel alike" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary). A more appropriate word may therefore be "compassion", which Lazarus (1991) describes as "being moved by another's suffering", and which Webster's defines as "deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation."


Compassion is elicited by the perception of suffering or sorrow in another person. Compassion appears to grow out of the mammalian attachment system, where it has obvious benefits as a mediator of altruism towards kin (Hoffman, 1982b). People can feel compassion for total strangers, and that is why compassion is shown on the far right of Figure 1, however compassion is most strongly and readily felt for one's kin, and for others with whom one has a close, communal relationship (Batson & Shaw, 1991).

Action tendencies

Compassion makes people want to help, comfort, or otherwise alleviate the suffering of the other (Batson, O'Quinn, Fulty, Vanderplass, & Isen, 1983; Batson & Shaw, 1991; Eisenberg, Fabes, Miller, Fultz, Shell, Mathy, et al., 1989; Hoffman, 1982b). Compassion is linked to guilt conceptually (Baumeister et al., 1994; Hoffman, 1982a) and empirically. People who are more prone to feel other people's pain are more prone to feel guilt, but are less prone to feel shame (Tangney, 1991). Because compassion has such a directly pro-social action tendency, it is shown at the top of Figure 1.

The Other-Praising Family

All of the emotions discussed so far have been responses to bad deeds done by others or by the self, or else to bad things experienced by others. But there is also a brighter side to the moral emotions: people are emotionally sensitive to good deeds and moral exemplars. As the movement for "positive psychology"(Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 1999) gathers force, the study of these positive moral emotions is an exciting new frontier of research.

Positive emotions are different from negative emotions. Negative emotions behave like red-alert buttons, focusing attention on a problem and setting in motion a corrective procedure. But positive emotions generally arise in safer situations where direct and focused action is not called for. Fredrikson (1998) has therefore proposed a "broaden and build" model in which the purpose of positive emotions is to broaden a person's "momentary thought-action repertoire." This broadening counteracts the narrowing effect that negative emotions typically have, and it makes a person more open to new ideas, new relationships, and new possibilities. Positive emotions help people to "be here now" (Dass, 1971). Positive emotions encourage people to build social bonds, practice skills, and make improvements in themselves that may pay off in the future, when the environment becomes more demanding (Fredrikson, 1998).

How many positive moral emotions are there? Ekman's (1994) long list of 17 potentially basic emotions includes the positive emotions of amusement, awe, contentment, excitement, interest, pride in achievement, relief, and sensory pleasure. Of these emotions, only awe and pride in achievement appear to meet even one of the two criteria for moral emotionhood used in this paper (i.e., disinterested elicitors, prosocial action tendencies). Pride has been discussed briefly above, as a self-conscious emotion, and as the ultimate self-praising emotion. Awe that is produced by exemplary human virtue will be discussed below, under "elevation." The only other positive moral emotion that has been mentioned by several theorists is gratitude (Lazarus, 1991b; Trivers, 1971). There may well be other positive moral emotions that Western emotion theorists have missed, but for now the emotions of elevation and gratitude can be thought of as two brothers in a joint family of positive emotions that are produced by the good or virtuous actions of other people. To maintain parallelism with the naming of the self-conscious and other-condemning families, this family might tentatively be called the "other-praising" family.


There has been very little empirical research on gratitude. A scan of the PsycInfo database finds only 47 articles for which gratitude appears in the title or key phrase. The majority of these articles are unpublished dissertations, or else they stem from Klein's (1957) psychoanalytic theories about the infant's gratitude for the mother's breast. Theorizing from an evolutionary perspective suggests that gratitude is part of the emotional mechanism of reciprocal altruism, encouraging individuals to repay benefactors, just as anger motivates individuals to punish cheaters (Trivers, 1971). More recent thinking within positive psychology has argued that gratitude is an important human strength, and that feelings of gratitude contribute to personal well-being, civic engagement, and spiritual satisfaction (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; Emmons & Shelton, in press). A recent review article (McCullough, Emmons, Kilpatrick, & Larson, in press) has rounded up all available research on gratitude and concluded that gratitude is indeed an important moral emotion, functioning both as a response to moral behavior and as a motivator of moral behavior.

Elicitors. Gratitude is defined as "the state of being grateful; warm and friendly feeling toward a benefactor prompting one to repay a favor" (Webster's Third). The few empirical studies that have been done on gratitude confirm that it is indeed triggered by the perception that another person has done a good deed for the self, intentionally and voluntarily (Tesser, Gatewood, & Driver, 1968; Weiner & Graham, 1989). McCullough et al. (in press) propose that gratitude functions as a "moral barometer", sensitive to events in which another person provides benefits to the self, although they note that the feeling of gratitude are always pleasant, while the feeling of indebtedness is often unpleasant.

Action tendency. McCullough et al. (in press) propose that gratitude functions as a moral motive in that it makes people act more prosocially, although their review found no empirical evidence that gratitude causes people to help anyone beyond their direct benefactor. In one of the earliest and largest studies of gratitude, Baumgarten-Traner (1938) asked 2000 Swiss children to state their greatest wish, and then to say how they would feel and react towards a person who granted them their wish. The results mirror Webster's definition, showing friendliness towards the benefactor, and a tendency to express thanks and to try to return a similar favor. However, public expressions of gratitude should not automatically be taken to indicate real feelings of gratitude; sometimes, like expressions of modesty, they are superficial concessions to self-presentational norms (Baumeister & Ilko, 1995).

Awe and Elevation

There has been even less empirical research on awe than on gratitude ­ only 11 articles in PsycInfo have "awe" in the title or key phrase. Lazarus (1991a) says that awe is an ambiguous state which can often be a negative experience, blending fright and amazement. Frijda (1986) discusses wonder rather than awe, which he links to surprise and amazement, and interprets as a passive, receptive mode of attention in the presence of something unexpected. A recent questionnaire study of the causes and consequences of awe (Shin, Keltner, Shiota, & Haidt, in preparation) finds that awe is elicited by a heterogenous set of experiences, the largest of which are experiences of natural beauty, artistic beauty, and exemplary or exceptional human actions or abilities. Awe appears to be elicited by exposure to certain kinds of beauty and perfection. As for its action tendencies, Shin et al. (in preparation) find, consistent with Frijda's description of wonder, that awe seems to make people stop, admire, and open their hearts and minds. It may be for this reason that awe is so often discussed in a religious context as the proper and desirable response to the presence of God (James, 1902/1961). This sort of awe may qualify as a moral emotion in a devoutly religious culture, and the design of many religious spaces can be seen as an attempt to produce or amplify awe experience, which in turn should make people more receptive to the teachings they hear.

There is, however, one emotional experience related to awe that qualifies as a moral emotion according to the two criteria of the present paper: elevation (Haidt, 2000a). Many people report being deeply moved simply by hearing stories about acts of kindness and charity. Haidt, Algoe, Tam, Chandler, and Meijer (2000) set out to investigate this emotional state by collecting narratives of such experiences, and by inducing it in the lab with videos about moral exemplars. They found that these emotional experiences have most of the hallmarks of a basic emotion, with the exception of a distinctive facial expression. Elevation appears to be caused by seeing manifestations of humanity's higher or better nature; it triggers a distinctive feeling in the chest of warmth and expansion; it causes a desire to become a better person oneself; and it seems to open one's heart not only to the person who triggered the feeling, but to other people as well. In all of its components, elevation appears to be the opposite of social disgust. Where social disgust is caused by seeing people blur the lower boundary between humans and non-humans, elevation is caused by seeing people blur the upper boundary between humans and God (i.e., saints, or people who act like saints). Where disgust makes people close off and avoid contact, elevation makes people open up and seek contact. Where disgust creates negative contamination (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994), elevation creates positive contamination (e.g., people want to touch living saints, or in some cultures to collect the hair, clothing, or bones of dead saints).

Elicitors. Elevation is elicited by moral beauty, just as social disgust is elicited by moral depravity. Acts of charity, kindness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice seem to be powerful elicitors, but more work is needed on the degree to which displays of different virtues produce the same feeling, or slightly different feelings.

Action tendency. Like gratitude, elevation makes a person feel warmth and affection towards the person who elicited the emotion. But unlike gratitude, elevation seems to create a more generalized desire to become a better person oneself, and to follow the example of the moral exemplar. People who experience elevation are more likely to want to help other people, to give money to charity, and to list pro-social actions when asked to write about their life goals (Haidt et al., 2000). Elevation therefore fits well with Fredrikson's (1998) "broaden and build" model. It opens people up to new possibilities for action and thought, making them more receptive to the lessons of a moral exemplar. This opening process may explain why narratives of the lives of saints and religious leaders (e.g., Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa) so often include accounts of people who, upon meeting the holy person, dropped their previous lives and even their previous names, and became re-born on the spot into a new, more altruistic and less materialistic identity. Elevation may function as a kind of "moral reset button" in the human mind. Moral exemplars can push this reset button in others, creating a virtuous ripple effect (Haidt, 2000a).

The Moral Nature of the Other-Praising Family

Elevation and gratitude motivate directly prosocial behavior, and are therefore placed along the top of Figure 1. The eliciting situations of gratitude are more self-interested, involving paying back one's own debts, so gratitude is shown in the left half of the figure. But the elicitors of elevation are perfectly disinterested. It is a remarkable and encouraging fact about human beings that simply hearing about a good deed, done by a stranger for another stranger, can profoundly affect us. Elevation therefore is, arguably, the most prototypical moral emotion of all.

Far more work needs to be done on the other-praising emotions. Fredrikson (1998) points out that the positive emotions are generally less discrete than the negative emotions, and therefore harder to divide up into families. This review has assumed that elevation is closely related to awe, perhaps being awe inspired by moral perfection. But the exact relationship will only be known as research on the positive emotions spreads out beyond the well-established fields of love and happiness, and takes on such emotional states as awe, admiration, elevation, respect, and gratitude.

Other Moral Emotions

There are, of course, other emotions that play a role in human moral life. The present review has argued that moral emotionhood is a matter of degree, and that any emotion is a moral emotion to the extent that it has disinterested elicitors and pro-social action tendencies. Almost any emotion can meet at least one of these criteria, at least some of the time. Fear, for example, can be an important cause of law-abiding or norm-respecting behavior. However the elicitors of fear generally trigger concerns about the self (or the self's closest kin). Likewise schadenfreude, the joy that is elicited by the misfortunes of others, contains an important moral component in that it is strongest when the person brought down was thought unworthy of her previous high status (Portmann, 2000). However schadenfreude appears to involve no pro-social action tendency. Fear and Schadenfreude are therefore marginal or non-prototypical moral emotions, and they are shown along the left and bottom margins, respectively, of Figure 1.

A more difficult question is the emotion of love. Love certainly distinguishes Homo Sapiens from Homo Economicus; love can lead people to do enormously pro-social and self-sacrificial acts; and at least one form of love ­ agape ­ is defined as a selfless and unconditional form of love. Agape love is a central emotion in the ethical systems of many religions (Templeton, 1999). However psychological work on agape love has treated it primarily as a trait, a "love style" (Lee, 1973) used by some people in their romantic relationships. More work is needed to determine whether agape love as an emotional experience can be triggered in social situations, with pro-social results.

A third consideration when searching for moral emotions is that cultural variation in both emotions and in moral systems can create local moral emotions, or locally moralized emotions. For example, the Natyashastra, a Hindu treatise on drama and the emotions from the 2nd century A.D., discusses the emotion of sama, glossed in translation as serenity/calmness (Masson & Patwardhan, 1970). Many Westerners may recognize that such an affective state, sometimes obtained through meditation, has benefits for mental health. But in the context of Hindu beliefs about transcendence and the importance of non-attachment sama becomes an important moral emotion. The action-tendency of sama, which is, paradoxically, inaction and detachment, is good not only for one's own spiritual advancement, but for the health of the cosmos as well (Shweder & Haidt, 2000). The selection and placement of emotions in Figure 1 must therefore be seen as the best guess of a Western emotion researcher, speculating about his own culture. The mapping of moral emotions in other cultures would be somewhat different.

Emotion vs. Reason: Who's in Charge?

Ever since Plato crowned reason as the king of the soul and ruler of the passions, there have been occasional voices of protest. David Hume's voice has been the loudest, with his famous claim that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them" (1739/1969, p.462). In psychology, Hume's emotivism found a rare but ready ally in Freud (1900/1976), who said that the ego is a servant of the id, and that reasoning is often just rationalization. As psychology moved into the cognitive revolution, however, the study of morality became increasingly limited to the study of moral reasoning, based on Piagetian ideas about cognitive development (Piaget, 1932/1965; Kohlberg, 1969).

The balance of power began to change dramatically in the 1980's. Research on moral reasoning reached its quantitative peak (see Table 1), but it began losing some of its energy and focus as Kohlberg's theory became more complicated, and as his critics grew louder (see Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983). At the same time, however, research on the moral emotions grew rapidly, and the "toolbox" of emotions expanded to include emotions other than guilt and empathy/sympathy (see Table 1). As researchers began to chronicle the early and dramatic emergence of the moral emotions in children (Harris, 1989), and the early affective responses children have to the violation of standards (Kagan, 1981), the weapons became available to wage what might be called the "moral-emotional correction" ("revolution" would be too strong a word). Jerome Kagan was one of its first leaders. In The Nature of the Child (1984) he proposed that "beneath the extraordinary variety of surface behavior and consciously articulated ideals, there is a set of emotional states that form the bases for a limited number of universal moral categories that transcend time and locality" (p. 118). Kagan thought that these emotional reactions are the driving force of moral judgment, and that moral reasoning is often just post-hoc rationalization."Because humans prefer -- or demand, as some psychologists would say -- a reason for holding a standard, they invent the arguments that rationalists regard as essential" (Kagan, 1984, p.122).

Kagan's arguments were extended by theorists in a variety of fields. The economist Robert Frank (1987) showed that the moral emotions serve as "commitment devices," which allow people to work together in the face of temptations to defect, while simultaneously signaling to others that they can be counted on in future interactions not to defect. The philosopher Allan Gibbard (1990) argued that the moral emotions are adaptive syndromes shaped by evolution to make people liable to "normative governance," that is, the pull of rules and moral discourse. The sociologist James Q. Wilson (1993) revived Hume's arguments about the "moral sense," and grounded them firmly in a review of findings from across the behavioral sciences.

By the early 1990's social psychologists began taking part in the moral-emotional correction. Major review articles on shame (Tangney, et al., 1996), guilt (Baumeister, et al., 1994), embarrassment (Keltner & Buswell, 1997), and disgust (Rozin, et al., 1993) stressed the moral functions of these emotions, and the ways that they work together to structure social interactions (for a review see Keltner & Haidt, 1999). At the same time, social psychologists began rediscovering the importance of automaticity in mental life, and questioning the causal efficacy of consciously reportable reasoning (Bargh, 1994; Wegner & Bargh, 1998), a view that harkens back to Nisbett and Wilson (1977). These converging trends made it possible to ask in the 1990's: could moral reasoning be an epiphenomenon? Could human morality really be run by the moral emotions, while moral reasoning struts about pretending to be in control?

Haidt (2000b) argued for this "Wizard of Oz" scenario. He drew on research in primatology, neurology, anthropology, and psychology to suggest that moral judgment involves quick gut feelings, or affectively laden intuitions, which then trigger moral reasoning as an ex-post facto social product.. This "social intuitionist" model of moral judgment says that people do indeed engage in moral reasoning, but they do so to persuade others, not to figure things out for themselves. This model reverses the Platonic ordering of the psyche, placing the emotions firmly in control of the temple of morality, while reason is demoted to the status of un-humble servant(4).


Whether the moral emotions are ultimately shown to be the servants, masters, or equal partners of moral reasoning, it is clear that they do a tremendous amount of work in the creation and daily functioning of human morality. The capacity to feel contempt, anger, disgust, shame, embarrassment, guilt, compassion, gratitude, and elevation may or may not separate humans neatly from other animals, but it certainly separates humans from Homo Economicus. Morality dignifies and elevates because it ties us all to something greater than ourselves: each other.

Table 1

Journal articles in PsycInfo, on selected emotions and topics





% increase


























Empathy or sympathy










Moral Emotion Indexa










"Emotion or emotions"b





"moral or morality"b





"moral reasoning"b





Fear c





Note. The count was limited to journal articles that contained the word(s) in the left-hand column either in the key-phrase field, or in the title of the article. Sorted by declining % increase from the late 1970's to the late 1990's.

aMoral Emotion Index refers to the simple sum of the seven moral emotions listed

bThese three terms are included to show that research on the emotions has increased greatly, while research on morality and moral reasoning has grown more slowly, and has declined since the 1980's.

cResearch on fear, a non-moral emotion, has grown more slowly than has research on most of the moral emotions.

Figure 1

The Two Features of Moral Emotions [note: this table is a mess in
HTML; it should show 2 dimensions with elevation high on both (upper
right corner), and sadness and happiness low on both (lower left

 Pro- sociality of Action Tendency



Gratitude Shame

Anger Elevation Guilt Compassion



Fear Pride

Embarrassment Disgust







Sadness Happiness




Self-interested Disinterested

Disinterestedness of Elicitors
Note. The placement of each emotion is highly speculative, and many
alternate arrangements could be justified. See text for discussion of
this arrangement. Each emotion has many forms or sub-types; only the
most moral subtype of each emotion is shown, e.g., righteous
indignation for anger. More prototypical moral emotions are near the
upper right corner. DAAD = distress at another's distress. 


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Author notes

I thank Paul Rozin for helpful comments and editorial guidance. Preparation of this paper was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, grant #1-RO3-DA12606-01. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jonathan Haidt, Dept. of Psychology, Gilmer Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA 22904-4400. Electronic mail may be sent to


1. Emotion theorists often distinguish between specific antecedent events and the highly abstract appraisals of those events for a person's well-being, such as "novelty" or "goal-blockage" (Scherer, 1984; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). The word "elicitor" was chosen as a way of obtaining an intermediate level of abstraction. It should be taken to refer to a class of events in the world, as perceived and understood by a person, that generally triggers a particular emotional response. Examples of elicitors include being insulted, or seeing an act of generosity. This usage is similar to what Mesquita and Frijda (1992) call "event coding."

2. "Economic (hu)man", a perfectly rational calculator of expected costs and benefits for the self.

3. Differences in emotion lexicons are not in themselves reliable guides to differences in emotional experience (Haidt & Keltner, 1999; Mesquita & Frijda, 1992). However ethnographic accounts (e.g., Abu-Lughod, 1986) strongly suggest that there are real differences in the experience of the self-conscious emotions.

4. The model does allow reason to play a causal role in moral judgment under limited circumstances, such as when intuitions conflict, or are so weak that they are easily overridden. Furthermore the model discusses cultural variation in the relations between reasoning and intuition (which includes the moral emotions). In highly educated subcultures such as those of academics, members are immersed in a culture of reasoning and reason-giving, and they may at times reason their way to a judgment that conflicts with their initial intuition.