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Ethics and Modes of Persuasion

As this series on critical thinking and ethics (applied to cases in this year’s Ethics Bowl) winds down, I’d like to make a recommendation that those deliberating at Ethics Bowl events over the coming weeks stop to quantify how much their arguments and the arguments of others tap into both rational factors (like logic) and non-rational ones (like emotions or appeals to group belief).

One way of doing so is to consider arguments in light of Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos, that you can read about in this series.

Borrowing from the first piece in that series:

Arguments you have seen translated into structured statements and then analyzed for validity and soundness have either failed or passed tests designed to determine if the logic behind those arguments, i.e., their logos, is strong or weak.
Since human beings are not robots or Vulcans (and most of us are not logicians), arguments also tend to appeal to us emotionally with the emotional content of an argument referred to as pathos.
Finally, while you can argue with yourself, the vast majority of arguments are between people, or groups of people, meaning interpersonal factors such as trust and respect (or lack thereof) often play a role in who and what we believe. These interpersonal factors play into Aristotle’s third mode of persuasion: ethos.

Until now, I’ve not looked at the questions that appear at the end each Ethics Bowl case since I don’t want any work in this series to be perceived as providing answers to questions students should be grappling with on their own. But the three questions at the end of Case #11 (“All the Opinions Fit to Print?”) seem remarkably well aligned with Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion, making them a useful way to illustrate the roles logos, pathos, and ethos can play in an argument.

The case itself is about upheaval at the New York Times over an opinion piece they ran in 2020 when violent riots were taking place across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The author of that piece, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, urged that the military be called out to quell the unrest. Readers and Times staff members strongly objected to his opinion, leading to the publication of an apology for letting the piece run, as well as the departure and reassignment of senior Times editors responsible for publishing Cotton’s op ed.

I’ve written a LogicChecker about a more recent controversy at the New York Times for people interested in the nature and scope of problems alleged to be going on at the paper. But for this analysis, let’s see how the three questions associated with the Ethics Bowl case align with each of the three Modes of Persuasion.

The first question asks “Is there a morally relevant distinction between written and spoken media that is political and controversial in nature?"

While logos/logic alone might not be able to determine what is and isn’t considered “controversial,” it can be used to make distinctions between written and spoken opinion. There exist huge bodies of law, after all, that identify when communication is and isn’t malicious, whether that communication is written (covered by libel law) or spoken (covered by laws regarding slander).

Even if law alone might not settle the matter in this specific instance, it does provide systematic rules regarding how these two types of communication (written and spoken) might differ, giving students logical guidance on how to answer the question. Similarly, legal and journalistic precedent can provide insights that can be used to make ethical distinctions between what runs in the news versus the opinion pages of the Times or any other paper.

Question #2 asks: “What responsibility do news publications have to their audiences? In what ways should they regulate and limit the views that get expressed in their editorial venues?” If you replace “audiences” with “tribes” or “demographic,” it’s clear this question is asking how a newspaper should take into account the connection it is making with readers, with connection to an audience being a matter of ethos.

In theory, a newspaper should be impartial, communicating “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” regardless of what anyone else (including paying subscribers and staff members) think. But does this policy, which normally refers to news coverage, extend to editorials?

If it does, should editorials be selected based on their timeliness and newsworthiness, or on how paying readers (or critics on social media) might react? And if a paper decides the editorial page exists to cater to the biases of a majority of readers, what does that mean for readers who don’t agree with that majority, or non-subscribers impacted by what appears in America’s “paper of record?”

Finally, if decisions over what is published on the editorial pages hang on keeping a majority or vocal minority of readers and staff members happy, what might this do to trust in the same paper’s news coverage? All of these questions set up a necessary discussion of what constitutes constructive versus destructive appeals to ethos.

The last question associated with this case asks: “How should editors balance the need to represent a diversity of views with the danger of giving voice to views that may have a foreseeable risk of misinformation or incitement?”

The key words to consider in this question are “danger” and “risk,” which have morphed in recent years from describing physical threats (like urging one person to punch another) to emotional states (i.e., perceived senses of danger, whether or not there is a direct link to violence, including risks to people’s emotional wellbeing).

Many recent controversies at the Times hinge on the emotions of employees who claim to feel unsafe due to things happening at the paper (like publishing of the Cotton editorial, or the presence of staff members whose views they disagree with). Given that these debates are all about emotion, they are really covering the role pathos should play in editorial decision-making at a newspaper.

Since human beings are emotional creatures, pathos cannot be eliminated from the equation entirely. This requires those analyzing cases such as this one to consider whether protests against Cotton’s editorial are appealing to good emotions (like genuine concern for the physical safety of protestors) or bad emotions (such as the disquieting feelings one gets when having to read or listen to opinions you do not agree with).

In the past, I’ve made the case that logic rarely makes up even one half of an effective argument. But if emotion (pathos) and connection (ethos) are going to be brought into the equation, one must get the balance of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion right and make sure pathos- and ethos-based appeals are made to our better natures.

Arguments for and against the decision described in this Ethics Bowl case may not be able to prove definitively who is right and who is wrong, but the arguments themselves can be judged as strong and weak based partly on which ones make the most effective use of all three of Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion.


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