Emotion, empathy, reason and ethics

‘Mrs Meyer, The Bird’, by Wolf Erlbruch.

Mrs Meyer worries excessively about everything, no matter how trivial or improbable. Her anxiety finds a worthy object in Lindberg, an abandoned baby blackbird whom she rescues, cares for and nurses to health in her kitchen. Once the little bird is fledged, Mrs Meyer teaches him to fly. Her method requires overcoming her own fears, as she launches herself from a tree to accompany Lindberg on his first thrilling flight.

Discussion – Subjective phenomenology and empathy
  • Think about a time when you experienced a really strong emotion. Is it possible for someone else to understand exactly what that felt like for you?

Activity – What makes you feel like this?

  • From an array of pictures conveying the expression of emotions, select a few that you can relate to. Here are some emotions you might choose from:

happy, relaxed, mischievous, excited
shy, bored, confused, guilty, relieved
sad, scared, surprised, embarrassed
anxious, lost, upset, angry, confident
jealous, lonely, proud, stressed

‘FACE IT’ cards by Quirky Kid

  • What makes you feel each of these emotions? Write or draw your responses.

Discussion – Emotions, reason and ethics
  • Can we control our emotions, or are they involuntary? Is caring about someone something you have control over? Can you control your level of worry, or your level of confidence?
  • Are emotions always irrational? Or might they play an important role in decision making? Is there a difference between making an emotional choice and a rational choice?
  • Do we need emotions to motivate us? Do our emotions help us to live better lives? Do they help us to behave more ethically? Do they help us understand ourselves?
  • What role do emotions play in relationships between people?
  • Is it sometimes wrong to have certain emotions? Does it make sense for someone to tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling?
  • Why are we sometimes emotionally affected by art (paintings, movies, songs, stories, dance etc)?

Philosophical Allsorts

“If we resist our passions it is more from their weakness than from our strength.” François de La Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680)

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” David Hume (1711 – 1776)

“Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

“Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark.” Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821 – 1881)

“Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.




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