Whither Ethics?

A Primer on Where to Look These Days...


Old man Aristotle had it right. He claimed there are just three basic principles to keep in mind when imbibing the latest draught from the political or entertainment well. Depending on where you dig, you may wind up with fresh water or foul. Best practices and common sense require that you test the water before swallowing.

First of all, know the fellow (or gal) who told you to dig. Is he trustworthy? After all, you are counting on his advice to help you find truth. He wants you to buy what he’s selling, believe in his message, and elect him to office. This is called ethos and it goes right to the fellow’s character.   A man who is ethical is a man who has integrity. He may be incorrect – he may, in all sincerity believe he is a rutabaga – but at the very least you can trust him to give you his version of the truth. He may try to persuade you, but he won’t try to manipulate you. He will give you the truth as he sees it. But that’s as far as ethos will carry you. I don’t want to elect a man who believes he is related to one of the three food groups, no matter how deep his convictions.

That’s why we need principle #2: logos. Logos has to do with the logic of the salesman’s argument. Does it make sense that you should dig your well here? Do you have a seismic survey that indicates there is water down there? In short, is the argument reasonable?

Now we come to the tricky member of this rhetorical trinity: pathos. Pathos appeals to emotion. Of course pathos can be abused. The unethical director can spin an emotional tale that will corkscrew his audience into an emotional pretzel – to swallow his message based on an emotional appeal that is a lie. In a pure appeal to pathos, Leni Riefenstahl paraded ethos in a swastika. In a kind of rhetorical final solution, she crowded logos into a cattle car with the rest of the Jews and made it disappear.

In a pure appeal to pathos reason is reduced to how I feel.

On the other hand, the legitimate use of pathos inspires the reader or viewer or listener to passionate conviction and ultimate action based on the integrity of the speaker (ethos), the logic of his argument (logos) and – here comes pathos – the degree to which the person receiving the message identifies emotionally with the story/message that is true.

There is an inner sense that the emotion of the story is being revealed and not concocted. And that we are being invited to participate intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally in a truth claim. There is a resonance based on a moral premise that rings true and is consistent with natural law (read Stanley Williams’s The Moral Premise).

Ethos. Logos. Pathos. Jesus invites us to come and drink from His well (see John 4). He is trustworthy because he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6). He is the divine Logos (John 1:1), the one who perfectly, reasonably reveals the way of eternal life. He is the one who inspires absolute allegiance of intellect, heart, and will.

If you’d looking for ethics these days, you need look no further than Jesus.


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