Last time, I described Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion: logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (connection with others), and promised to give you examples of arguments that failed from leaning too heavily on just one of those three modes.
A famous example of an argument (or at least an answer to a question) that failed spectacularly due to an over-reliance on logos was this exchange during one of the 1988 Presidential debates:
CNN moderator Bernard Shaw took heat for framing his question about candidate Michael Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty around whether the candidate would reconsider his position in the case of someone who had raped and murdered Dukakis’ own wife. But the candidate himself suffered worse consequences over the nature of his reply.
Rather than respond emotionally (by declaring the pain and fury such a hypothetical would cause him personally, but asking whether pain and fury should drive social policy with life and death consequences, for example) Dukakis instead delivered a bloodless list of reforms he had accomplished as Governor of Massachusetts, cementing in viewers’ minds the perception that the candidate lacked emotion and empathy.
If you look at this exchange, there was nothing unreasonable about the candidate’s answer, except for the fact that he misperceived the actual purpose behind the question: to determine if Dukakis did or did not fit the stereotype of an unfeeling robot.
If you want a more contemporary example of an argument rendered less persuasive due to overreliance on logos, consider this one (reproduced below) that analyzes the impact of Coronavirus-related shut downs through cost/benefit analyses.
The analysis hinges on cost/benefit ratios in which the numerator (the cost of an economic shut down) and denominator (the value of human lives lost due to the virus) translates to a dollar value per human life.
This is the sort of math performed by actuaries, a job that (among other things) involves casting human life in financial terms, most often in the context of insurance matters or legal settlements. Settling a wrongful death suit, for instance, requires establishing the value of the years taken from the deceased (by calculating how much he or she might have earned over the rest of his or her life had that life not been cut short, for example).
While certain activities might require this sort of utilitarian calculus, acting as if such numbers actually reflect the value of an individual’s life conflicts with most people’s belief that human life is of infinite worth. This is why modern society requires us to keep two sets of books: one for our morals (that assigns the price tag of infinity to every life) and a second set for practical purposes where infinity cannot be the only number in our equations.
It is this double bookkeeping that limits the effectiveness of an argument that presumes each human life should be valued at $150,000 per “life year,” an average that derives from the aforementioned actuary field. Based on this figure, the writer of the editorial determines at what point certain levels of economic hardship are “worth it” based on a dollar figure assigned to lives lost.
I should note that the editorial I’m analyzing is presenting, rather than advocating, arguments of this type and while such arguments are highly logical (certainly in economic terms), they are more likely to disturb than persuade the average reader who does not want to think about human lives in those terms.
A more persuasive version of the same argument would cast the cost to the economy not in financial but human terms, noting the suffering and even deaths likely to result from people becoming impoverished due to the economy collapsing. Such an approach would balance the logos of the argument with a healthy dose of pathos.
An edgier, but potentially effective alternative might involve confronting the reader with the fact that we all make choices based on actuarial calculus, even as we profess the infinite value of every life. For instance, we could prevent the 38,000 deaths per year in automobile accidents by shutting down the nation’s roads and highways and banning the use of cars. The fact that we don’t means we have all made the decision that the benefits of driving, for ourselves and society, is worth the cost of tens of thousands of supposedly infinitely valued lives.
This alternative argument would highlight the surprising fact that there is some common ground between the number-crunching economist and the tender-hearted lover of humanity. Because the fact is that we all have to live with double bookkeeping regarding the value of human life. As many others have noted, we really are all in this together. And what could be a more ethos-driven argument than that?
As I mentioned, the editorial is more descriptive than prescriptive. Still, because the writer missed the opportunity to frame his presentation using more than just logos, I’m going to assign it just 2/5 dumbbells.
As we continue to look at logos, pathos and ethos in real-world terms, note how factors like emotion and instinct (often decried as enemies of reason) might actually help us better understand problems we face, as well as help us better grapple with challenging arguments on how to solve them.
Are we overreacting to the coronavirus? Let’s do the math
Geoffrey Joyce, Marketwatch
Is the economic cost of COVID-19 $150 billion? Or $5.6 trillion?
As coronavirus deaths and infections plateau in many parts of the country, and as the economic damage of stay-at-home orders mounts, a question is gaining ground: Are we overreacting?
Some economists and business leaders believe the costs of constraining the virus have exceeded the benefits. They point to unemployment totals not seen since the Depression and entire industries shut down, compared to virus death totals that may reach only the numbers from a bad flu season (55,000).
As more data become available, the epidemiological trajectory of the virus is becoming clearer, allowing us to estimate the costs of COVID-19 and whether government restrictions are worth the price we are paying.
Serology results suggest that about 3% of the U.S. population is infected, 1 in 10 of whom will be hospitalized (based on New York City data), and 1 in 200 of the infected dying (0.5% mortality rate or about 5 times the flu). Economists can use those numbers as part of a cold-eyed calculation that includes the economic value of a life year.
By looking at what we are willing to pay to reduce the risk of death—for example, how much will we pay for a smoke detector at home or air bags in the car—economists assign a dollar figure to a life year, now typically measured at $150,000. Applying that measure to the age distribution of the deceased, and adding the costs of treating the infected population, the total cost of COVID-19 in the U.S. under current restrictions appears to be about $150 billion. This estimate pales in comparison to the $2.3 trillion stimulus package alone and seems to support Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s recent concern that “the cure is worse than the disease”.
But what would the cost be if governments had not imposed restrictions and simply let the virus run its course? Suppose, if unchecked, 30% of Americans became infected, far below most estimates, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s projection that 56% of his state’s residents would be infected without mitigation. Applying the same rates of hospitalizations and mortality to this higher rate of prevalence increases the cost of COVID-19 to nearly $3 trillion. And if we assume, quite reasonably, that mortality rates would rise from 0.5% to 1.5% as hospitals become increasingly overrun, the estimated cost of COVID-19 increases to $5.6 trillion, by my calculations.
Just like a pandemic, the economic toll is not linear. Small additional increases in prevalence and mortality rates lead to spiraling cost estimates that quickly reach tens of trillions of dollars.
Given the country’s delayed response to the virus that allowed it to spread unchecked in February and into March, the government had no choice but to restrict social interaction and close down nonessential activity. The costs of not doing so would very likely have been far greater than the economic toll we’re experiencing. Certainly the risk of a catastrophe was mounting by the day.
Coronavirus-related restrictions have worked, as the number of new cases and deaths begin to recede and the debate shifts toward finding an appropriate balance between continued mitigation and restarting the economy. Americans’ ambivalence over how to proceed was on full display over the past week, as impatience with prolonged stay-at-home orders led to protests in several capitals, while the newly formed task force led by banking and financial services executives told President Trump that the public would not return to work, eat at restaurants and shop like before unless testing for the virus was dramatically increased.
When the virus threat is over, the second-guessing on every policy step and misstep will be cacophonous. But we should remember that when the risk is extreme, such as it is for global warming or COVID-19, public policies should be based on credible worst-case scenarios.
Too much is at stake to act otherwise.