Upper School Philosophers

Are emotions rational? This complex question initiated a recent Philosophy 101 class, (a new Upper School FOCUS course), during which students deconstructed and examined the multifaceted human occurrence that is emotions.

“Before we dive into this over-arching question, what should we ask first?” inquired US teacher, librarian (and alum!) Lucy Davis.

The students, who were seated in a half circle around the room and wearing pink tops with their kilts in support of breast cancer awareness, began to rattle off questions to help inform their thinking. A few of those suggested included ‘What is rational?’ ‘Do we have control over the emotions we feel?’ ‘Are emotions separate from us and our minds?’ ‘Are emotions thought-dependent?’ and ‘Do emotions disappear when conflict or cause is resolved?’

Prior to this class, the students had learned three ways in which philosophers think about emotions – the Evaluative Tradition, the Feeling Tradition and the Motivational Tradition. Simply stated, Evaluative theorists declare that emotions are (or are caused by) cognitive judgements. Feeling theorists believe that emotions are our perceptions of our own bodily sensations. For example, awareness of your heart pounding or palms sweating would equal the emotion “fear.” Lastly, Motivational theorists suggest that emotions are motivational states. In other words, emotions are desires, attitudes or states of action-readiness that propel us towards or against the objects of our emotions.

Ms. Davis also introduced the notion of ‘ego-dystonic’ and ‘ego-syntonic.’ The former means that while you may physically feel a certain emotion, cognitively you believe it to be intrusive or untrue. (For example, you feel anxious and scared, but you don’t want to be.) The latter refers to when values, ideas and behaviors are aligned. (You’re scared and it makes sense, you believe you should be.)

Next, with the help of Ms. Davis, students defined rational emotions, in this case, as “happening for a logical reason,” and irrational emotions as “happening independent of a logical reason.”

With that, the class split into two groups, with the left side of the room tasked with presenting emotions as irrational and the right side as rational. “Discuss with your group and come up with three arguments and one example,” said Ms. Davis.

The Upper Schoolers immediately dove into deep discussions. “Does rational have to equal valid? Valid doesn’t have to mean ‘good,’ necessarily, but perhaps acceptable,” began the group of the right.

On the left side, students suggested, “Actions caused by emotions can often be irrational.”

Another student proposed, “If two people have depression, but only one knows that they do, are they both expressing rational emotions?”

As the students held these discussions amongst themselves, Ms. Davis conferred with the groups and listened to their astute ideas. After 20 minutes of animated conversation, a member from each group wrote their hypotheses on the white board.

Under the heading “Irrational,” the following three points were listed:

  1. Emotions don’t necessarily happen for a reason. (Example: Mood swings)
  2. Emotions can cause irrational actions. (Example: Rage may equal physical fighting or impulsive attacks, which is not rational)
  3. Sometimes emotions don’t go away even if the cause is solved (and thus they cannot be said to be rationally derived).

Under the opposing “Rational,” students listed:

  1. All emotions are reactions to physical, environmental or chemical situations whether or not the person is aware of the cause.
  2. The cause of our emotions might be in our subconscious but that doesn’t mean the emotions themselves are irrational.
  3. Rational doesn’t mean it’s socially acceptable – it just means there must be a cause or reason. (Example: Laughing at a funeral is not socially acceptable but it may be the person’s attempt to trick themselves into being happy in a sad situation.)

Once both sides had presented their ideas, a spirited debate ensued with both parties offering constructive rebuttals and feedback, demonstrating the scholars’ high-level of thinking and reasoning.

When the robust period came to an end, Ms. Davis reminded the students to read the introduction to All About Love by bell hooks. “Next week we’re diving into a specific emotion – Love! See you next time!”