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Continuing the discussion of logos, pathos and ethos, as appealing as it might be to base all of our decisions on cold, hard logos, logic on its own suffers from some significant shortcomings.

First, the structure of logic works, regardless of the “facts” it is applied to. For example, if all unicorns are magical creatures AND Gerry is a unicorn, then the statement “Gerry is a magical creature” logically follows, even if unicorns, magical creatures (or Gerry, for that matter) do not exist.

Those who have been keeping up with LogicCheck know I’m simplifying since the argument claiming Gerry being a magical creature is logically valid (i.e., the premises lead to the conclusion) but unsound (since premises requiring the existence of unicorns are false, or at least doubtful). But since logic alone cannot always tell us which premises are true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, we’re back to the problem of logos not always providing enough punch to solve complex problems.

Even worse, for those looking for practical ways to apply critical thinking to important real-world situations (such as who to vote for or when to break out of COVID lockdown), logic cannot necessarily break a tie between two arguments of equal logical strength.

Building on a simple example I’ve used in the past, say a school band has received money from a kind benefactor and must decide whether to spend that money on new uniforms, or accept an invitation to march and play in the Rose Bowl parade which requires using that money for travel expenses. There are perfectly logical arguments why the school band should spend its money on either option. For example, new uniforms can provide benefits for many years, while playing at a high-profile event might raise the popularity of the band and help it recruit new members, ensuring long-term viability. But can logic help us decide between these two equally valid goods?

Given that most of the substantive debates we have (or should have) are based on choosing between equally valid (and often equally good or bad) choices, something other than logic must be used to help us make a decision.

Enter human emotion.

Arguments based on emotion (i.e., pathos) tend to make us uneasy since emotion is seen as non-rational and those who build their arguments around emotions can come off as manipulative. And there is no question that pathos can be and has been used to manipulate people throughout history.

But the criticism of pathos being destructive assumes that all emotions are equal, which is clearly not the case. Appealing to fear, greed, hate, envy and guilt for example, means evoking bad emotions (or, as I like to think of them, “emotions of the gut”), while an appeal to courage, generosity, love and sympathy evokes good emotions (or “emotions of the heart”).

So one way to determine if pathos is being used cynically or constructively is to analyze whether the emotions we are being asked to take into account when evaluating an argument (such as a campaign speech) are targeting our gut or our heart.

The other factor to keep in mind is that strong arguments that leverage emotion (good or bad) should not rely exclusively on emotional appeals. In fact, one sure sign of demagoguery is the demagogue’s exclusive use of or over-reliance on pathos as opposed to finding just the right combination of logos and pathos to drive their argument forward.

Given that every political debate has an emotional component, we should not become cynical if a political speaker makes use of powerful pathos-based rhetorical techniques. And we should be particularly careful not to fall into the trap of deciding that the emotional content of speeches made by candidates we support are inspiring while those made by their opponents are creepy and cynical.

Rather, we should judge political speech – and every other form of argumentation – based on whether the speaker is appealing to the gut or the heart, and how well they get the balance right between logos and pathos. If they get this tricky combination right, they will be rewarded with the highly valuable third component of rhetoric: ethos, the subject of the next posting on Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion.


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