Emotion & Ethics What are the limits of emotion as a way of knowing?

Essential Question

To what extent does emotion influence ethics?

While emotion can be used as a basis for values, this way of knowing will not reliably bring a knower to make an ethical decision. Emotions are important in being able to instinctively decide the difference between right and wrong based on certain moral and ethical values that are held in high importance. However, in certain situations, due to the often uninformed and egocentric nature of emotion, this way of knowing is actually a poor guide to values. For instance, in the case of genocides, the emotions of seemingly good people are manipulated to the point where they are able to condone or even aid mass killings. In this case, this manipulation is accomplished through the use of dehumanization and polarization, or division, within society. The German people were specifically susceptible to these tactics during the Holocaust. Due to uninformed emotions and prejudices against Jewish people, German citizens were easily influenced by the abundant propaganda. The education during this time built on a history of hatred and feelings of inferiority by spreading the concept of an ideal Aryan race, rather than focusing on the importance of acceptance and tolerance. Furthermore, the strongest emotions that people experience are usually related to themselves or their immediate relations. Thus, by dehumanizing Jews and other minorities, portraying them as monsters, the Nazi party preyed on the egocentric fear and disgust of the populace. As stated by former Congressman Tim Holden, “The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to… confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction.” During the Holocaust, instead of emotions acting as an effective way of determining what is ethically right, emotions were actually manipulated to justify the genocide. It is clear that emotions do not necessarily serve as a reliable basis for ethics. Therefore it is important for a knower to recognize that while emotions are useful, this way of knowing must be used in balance with others, as it has the ability to quickly become more dangerous than useful.

Writing process

Practice with WOK Language: How does language shape knowledge?


Language is crucial to our societies and as a way of knowing, as a majority of our knowledge comes through language in some manner; however, language also has limitations in the nature of knowledge it can bring us, primarily due to its ambiguity. For instance, words often have double meanings, and these meanings can be manipulated to bring one to a false conclusion, in a process known as equivocation. For example, if the statements “Nothing is better than eternal life” and “A sandwich is better than nothing” are true, than it logically follows that “A sandwich is better than eternal life.” Here the double meaning of “nothing” leads the knower to come to a false conclusion because of the way the language was manipulated. Another instance of language shaping knowledge in a negative way is persuasive language, specifically 'weasel words'. This type of persuasive language is commonly found in the media and in advertisements to shape a buyer’s knowledge of a product or event. ‘Weasel words’ are words that give the seller an ‘escape route’, meaning that what seems to be true according to the language is not necessarily true. For example, when stores advertise “Up to 50 percent off,” this makes the buyer believe that they will be getting the full fifty percent off, when in reality this means that a store can sell products at full price and they are still technically following the description of the sale.


Since a great deal of language is ambiguous, language can be used to manipulate the knowledge a knower gains and the way she or he sees the world. This persuasion is often seen in the media, particularly in the ways in which advertisements are used shape a buyer’s knowledge of a product to increase sales. Weasel words, or language that intentionally makes a seemingly clear concept ambiguous, are often seen in advertisements. These words give the seller a way of circumventing the initial guarantee through technicalities that are not apparent at first glance. A specific example of this concept is the use of the phrase “up to fifty percent off,” which many stores use to attract customers and make their products more appealing. This phrase leads the buyer to believe the she or he will be receiving the full fifty percent off, when in reality the store can sell products at full price while technically following the description of the sale, due to the use of the weasel words, “up to." In this instance and similar situations, the knower is being manipulated into making an assumption that is not explicitly stated through the language used. Although language may seem to be straightforward in the way in which it shapes knowledge, due to the nature of the language and its ambiguity, what the words appear to say is not necessarily true.

Emotion: Brainstorming and Research


  1. Classification: People are categorized by their race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. These categories follow an “us and them” mentality and begin the isolation and hatred of certain groups of people.
  2. Symbolization: Groups of people are given names or symbols to distinguish them from others, sometimes unwillingly. It often does not lead to genocide unless it progresses to the third stage, dehumanization.
  3. Dehumanization: This is the denial of humanity towards a certain group. Members are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases. Dehumanization allows humans to think of murder as a normal thing.
  4. Organization: Genocide is planned either formally or informally. It is usually organized by the state through the use of special military units or militias.
  5. Polarization: Propaganda is used to isolate hated groups and laws are established to prohibit social interaction between these groups and other people. Extremists target moderates from their own group, silencing them.
  6. Preparation: Victims are identified and separated into different groups, and death lists are created. Groups are segregated into “ghettos”, taken to concentration camps, or confined to certain regions and starved.
  7. Extermination: This is the stage in which the mass killings occur, the actions legally called “genocide”. The perpetrators view it as “extermination” rather than murder because of the third stage, dehumanization.
  8. Denial: In this stage the perpetrators try to cover up evidence of the mass killings. They deny that they committed crimes and keep governing until they are forced out of power.


  • 11 million people and 1.1 children were killed
  • Jews, Jehovah's Witness's, disabled people, homosexual people, gypsies, and Roma were all targeted by the Nazis
  • These people were forced to wear certain symbols on their clothing to be easily identifiable
  • They were then forced into ghettos and concentration camps
  • The German people were brainwashed through propaganda, news, and education
  • Emotions of fear and disgust propagated by the government led people to suspend ethical considerations and condone this genocide

Progress journal

Initial Reflection. Today we started looking at how to write a Theory of Knowledge Essay. While the content of a TOK essay is different from that of an english or history essay, the overall format is very similar. Each paragraph has to have a topic sentence, an example, and analysis. It was helpful to look at a sample essay first and then write a paragraph of my own. Also, I was able to see how the badge projects and real life situations connect with TOK essays and how it is easy to formulate a question based on what we have already explored.

Elective Reading. As one of my elective readings, I read the New York Times article "Study: What Was the Impact of the Iconic Photo of the Syrian Boy?" It was fascinating to hear that a single photo roused the emotion and sympathy of the masses more than a tide of body counts, facts, figures, and other statistics did. This ties in with the idea that emotion can be unreliable and thus is not necessarily a good source of values. This refers to the fact that the times when we feel pity for the suffering of other people does not necessarily correspond to the incidences that are the most morally reprehensible. Oftentimes, smaller, more emotional pieces of information can move us as human beings more than a large amount of seemingly abstract statistics can. However, in many ways this is also a good thing that this photo was able to move so many people. This is because emotion can make something memorable and cause us to take action. This one picture inspired many more people to help the Syrian refugees than countless articles and pamphlets did. This article was so interesting because it went into the specifics of this phenomenon, regarding the increase in money raised and number of donors, among other factors.

Final Reflection. After writing the paragraph about emotion and ethics and the connection between the two, I realized several things about the writing process. The first important realization I came to was that it is crucial to brainstorm and come up with effective example before starting to write. I initially began to write the paragraph without first doing this, but I soon got stuck as I was out of material to write about. Additionally, I understood the importance of just starting to write without worrying about grammar or word choice during the first draft. It was more important to simply get my ideas down and then edit and fix the wording.

Extention Proposal


I believe the Radiolab story "Overcome by Emotion" would be a useful addition to the list of elective readings for the way of knowing, emotion. This podcast discusses the conflict between rational and emotional thought, as well as how they work together. It tells the stories of two different people, connected to reason and emotion. Professor Antoine Bechara discusses Elliot, an accountant who became entirely rational after a tumor was removed from his brain and author Steven Johnson discusses his experience with emotion in the years following a frightening situation. I found this podcast particularly significant because it connect two different ways of knowing, emotion and reason. It demonstrates how the WOKs work together to provide knowledge and how emotion and reason must be used in balance to be effective.

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