What happened to Ethos?

I was reading an article on Partial Objects that had this image at the bottom, with the text:

There’s the question then: How do you shift the argument from pathos to logos for someone who’s firmly stuck on the emotional side of the issues? And where the hell did ethos go?

Yeah, where the hell did ethos go? How do we get it back?

Ethos is a Greek word meaning, “character,” the guiding principles behind a community, nation or ideology. It is also the root for the word, “ethics.”

The triangle above is a representation of the 3 artistic proofs (methods of persuasion) in classical rhetoric, along with, Pathos – an appeal to emotion, and Logos – an appeal to logic.

It seems to me that too many of our current political discussions take place purely in the realm of Pathos. I can understand why people avoid Logos, modern Americans find logic boring. Logic doesn’t move us, inspire us or appeal to our decision making process in a way that would make it useful for political argument. In fact, use of logic tends to get politicians derided as elitist.

But, there is always Ethos. Ethos can win where Logos fails.

How do you use Ethos?

Well, the difficulty with Ethos is that it is purely in the mind of the audience…

The trick with Ethos is to point out what makes you credible from an ethical standpoint – and what makes your opponent non-credible.

When a Republican says we should lower taxes on the wealthy the Democrats should point out the obvious conflict of interest – most politicians (and their friends and supporters) are wealthy. Obama has been almost doing this by reminding everyone that he is wealthy when he talks about raising taxes, but I think he should go further.

I still feel that the American spirit is alive and well. We may not be as tied to logic as perhaps we once were, but ethics is part of us still. No one likes a hypocrite.

We should once again turn to crafting the American image. One of community, equality and freedom.

An Argument

Why do we have dividend taxes? Because in America we work for a living.

Why do we have estate taxes? Because in America you make your own way.

Why do we tax the rich more? Because they have 200 times more money, but don’t do 200 times more work .

That isn’t equality or fairness or the American way. We broke from England, not to get out of paying taxes, but to pay them on our own terms. It was about fairness, no taxation without representation. The burden falls on each person, according to their ability – the more ability you have, the more burden you get. There needs to be a price for success – that is how equality is maintained.

America was a break from the past – when you were entitled to riches because distant relatives earned them. When power came through birth and was absolute. In America you don’t get the right to rule, you have to earn the privilege from the people. In America you don’t get to be rich, that to you must earn, and you must pay your dues…

You don’t get rich without the working/middle class giving you money. They took care of you, it is only fair and equal that you take care of them – the America that gave you the opportunity of wealth.


For those who don’t know me, I’m not rich, but I do alright. I happily pay my taxes and would gladly pay more if it would help the country. That is what real patriotism is.


On Facts vs. Opinions

And why I’m not going to bother arguing them with you…

It seems that I find my self in many discussions throughout the day that resolve themselves to merely be a difference of opinion. I don’t like arguing opinions, it is useless. You can’t argue whether an opinion is right or wrong – opinions just are. If I say, “I think dirt tastes good,” you can’t really argue with that – it is what it is – mainly, a fact about an opinion. But, most people don’t word things that well. A person usually just says, “dirt tastes good,” while they wipe brown bits of it from their lips. Then the so-called “normal” person they are talking to says, “no it doesn’t” and you have a messy, dirty argument on your hands.

The problem is, while “dirt tastes good” sounds like a fact, it isn’t. It is an opinion pretending to be a fact, which is rather rude of it, I think. There is no point in trying to convince someone that they don’t like dirt. That is an argument you can’t win – and an argument you can’t win is one worth not having.

So if you can’t argue about opinions, can you argue about facts? Not really. Something is either a fact or it isn’t. You could argue that the thing someone is claiming as fact isn’t, but you’d better have proof.

Anyway, we’d better define what I mean by “fact.” A fact is at least two of these:

  1. Verifiable
  2. Testable
  3. Consensus-able


The first criteria I have for facts is that I can verify them. What this means, is that I have some way of getting at the same resource you used to come up with your fact – or a better resource. Was George Washington the first U.S. president? There are many places where I can verify that, so we call it a fact. It may be a “soft” fact, since I can’t go back in time and see it for myself, but a fact it remains – due to consensus. I’ll get to that in a second…


Another good criteria for facts is that they are testable. This works better for “hard” facts – things I can see with my own eyes. For instance, you say “red and blue make green” and I can get some paint and try it out. A point about tests – a good test will always be able to falsify a claim. You want a test to have zero false-positives, otherwise they are basically useless for determining facts.


Consensus is an oddball. Basically, it is a group of people sharing the opinion that a fact is a fact. This is why you can’t have consensus by itself, it relies on one of the other corners of the “fact triangle” to make a fact. Lot’s of people share the same opinion, like when Prop 8 was voted down in California – but that doesn’t mean it is a fact that homosexual marriage is a bad thing, just a fact that many people held that opinion.

The other thing to keep in mind, when looking for consensus, is the group of people forming the consensus. In order for something to be deemed a fact, you want consensus with the people who know about it. Just take a look at the ridiculous “evolution debate.” Among biologists, people who study life, there is very good consensus on evolution. Why? They are the ones doing the studies. They know what they are looking at, they have developed intimate knowledge of how biological systems work. To them, it becomes almost taken for granted that evolution is real – and I say almost, because of the second group of people.

Outside of the mainstream biological community there are many people who deny evolution is real. The people on this side have also formed a consensus – creationism – that is directly opposite to that of the other group. So, you have creationism going head to head against evolution – and it would be really confusing, except the creationists really only have one leg to stand on.

See, creationists have managed to form a consensus, and have gone as far to try and pass off their opinion as fact. And it really is only an opinion, which is why this makes such a great example. Let’s tear down creationism…

First, is it verifiable? You could say that most creationists will point to the bible as their verification. But, the problem with the bible is it doesn’t lay out the details of creation, or how it worked – it basically just says, “God did it” and leaves it at that. Since you can’t just ask God to show you what he did – and no, I don’t count praying and receiving a “feeling” as the same thing – then you can’t really call it verifiable.

Well then, is it testable? Sort of. There really isn’t a way to set up a test to see if things were (at least, not that I know of) spontaneously created, but you can test to see if it still happens. In short, it doesn’t. Turns out, when you watch a species closely, for long enough, you can see it evolve.

The only thing that creationism has is consensus, which simply isn’t enough.


I’ve said that you shouldn’t argue facts, because there really isn’t anything to argue about. You also shouldn’t argue opinions, because they are specifically not factual. There is no way to prove an opinion true or false, because that isn’t the nature of opinion.

Then, when is it worth your time to argue something? When someone is purposely trying to cast an opinion as a fact, or calling a fact just opinion. This is where the real argument lies. You have to be careful, though, to make sure you are on the right side of it – which means learning how to tell your facts and opinions apart. You also need to watch out for lazy speakers who phrase something like a fact, but really mean it as opinion. “Dirt tastes good” is never a good time to get into an argument. Other than some good-hearted mocking, it is best to leave things like that alone.

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

I finished reading “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,” by William B. Irvine, several weeks ago and have been letting it digest since then. For me, reading it was one of those moments where life suddenly clicks into focus.

The book is split into 4 sections. The first, “The Rise of Stoicism” covers the history of Stoicism in ancient Greece and Rome. It places the ideas in their historical context, allowing you to glean part of the how and why they came to be. The second section, “Stoic Psychological Techniques” outlines the tools the Stoics used to find joy and tranquility in a hard world. The third, “Stoic Advice” is all about the advice the Stoics had for handling common situations everyone finds themselves in. In the fourth, “Stoicism for Modern Lives,” Irvine talks about how to (easily) translate these ideas for the modern world and apply them to situations that would be unfamiliar to the Greeks or Romans.

I found it interesting that for the most part, the ancient Stoics had figured out people in a generic enough way that almost all their advice is still very relevant to modern people. What is sad, though, is that we don’t learn this stuff. Irvine even said that as a Professor of Philosophy, he had never learned much about the Stoics until he went and searched it out on his own.

The philosophy and advice of the Stoics is so great though, it is hard to believe that it isn’t very well known to us in modern times. I think we sometimes forget that even though the world has changed over the last couple thousand years – people have not. So, go pick up this book and give it a read. You have nothing to lose (well, $14 I guess)  and a happier life to gain.

Amazon has the first chapter you can read for free. You can also check out my earlier post: Twenty-First Century Stoicism that has links to some essays Irvine wrote for Boing Boing.

Conan has it

On the final night of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brian he said,

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Damn, Conan has got this shit figured out!

He had worked his butt off for years waiting for an opportunity to host the Tonight Show. In a letter to the “people of earth” he stated:

“I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky.”

One of the best ways to deal with your problems is to put them in perspective. He spent 17 years on television, something a lot of people would be thrilled with. So he loses the show he had always wanted to host – he still got to host it. Besides, there is always work for Conan. What does he have to be sad or upset about?


The Goal of Life

Do you have a goal of life?

Not a goal in life – that long list of things material or personal you wish to achieve – but of life, the goal that everything you do is aimed for.

What is the ultimate thing you want from this life? What is your purpose?

If you don’t know, ask yourself what your goals in life are for.

(Make believe example) Why go to school? To get a better job. Why get a better job? To make more money. Why make more money? To buy a nicer car and a bigger house. Why buy a nicer car and a bigger house?… Do you see where this is going?

A very good answer to the question has been known for thousands of years, but I don’t remember anyone ever teaching it to me. In fact I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that I should have a goal of life – just goals in life.

So, what is the answer? Have you figured it out yet?

The best “Goal of Life” that I know of, is this: Tranquility. A life free from negative emotions, such as: fear, anger, sorrow, regret, shame and hatred. A life filled with positive emotions, such as: joy, happiness, peace and love.

Can you think of anything better?

When you contemplate your actions, ask yourself, “will this fill me with happiness and free me from sorrow?”


Which will make you happier: buying a house you can barely afford or learning to love a house you can afford easily?


Epictetus said that a virtuous person would amend their will to suit the world and remain “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy,”

Twenty-First Century Stoicism

Writer, Philosophy Professor and Modern Stoic – William B. Irvine – has posted a series of articles on bOING bOING as an introduction to the Stoic Philosophy:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

He has also written a book on the subject, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which I hope to have a review of soon (I’m about 50% thru it).

(Note: Irvine is a Professor at Write State University in Dayton, OH – where I was a student for a single quarter. I didn’t have him for a class, nor do I think I’ve ever met him, but there still may be a little bit of bias toward my liking his work.)

Stephen Fry on Language

Reading the words of Stephen Fry is great, hearing him speak them is better. Combine the two and add some awesome typesetting by Australian student Matt Rogers and what you get is amazing.

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

Stephen does have a point, of course. Language is situational, you use different words in a work meeting than you would at home. When you write a paper for an English class, your usage needs to be different than when you write an email to a buddy.

But, it is still important to understand “proper” usage. That doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time, just be aware that there is a standard way of doing things.

Not being aware of the “rules” is ignorance. Knowing the “rules,” when to use them and when to break convention – that is something entirely different.