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Monday, January 25, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #3 - pathos

‘Once more with feeling …’

This is what directors are traditionally supposed to say to actors. Should debating coaches be saying it to debaters?

Debating is meant, in Aristotle’s terms, to be pure logos. Reason is supposed to rule supreme. But Aristotle, philosopher though he was, realised that we are not Vulcans (even though he had not heard of Star Trek), and that humans are led by feeling as much as by reason; or, as he called it, pathos.

How, then, to use feeling in your speeches?

It isn’t actually as separated from logos as it might seem. The force of an argument can lead to strong feelings. Given that debating is often about proposing solutions for real world problems, the emotions associated with the problems are a completely appropriate part of considering the solutions to them.

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re speaking for the motion ‘This house would take down public statues of people guilty of racist attitudes or behaviour.’

You say: ‘Imagine how a person of colour living in Bristol, looking at the statue of Edward Colston [a slave trader whose statue was  taken down by protesters in August 2020] must have felt to be confronted every day with evidence of the abuse and exploitation of their ancestors.’

You are making a rational point: that celebrating people guilty of racism attacks people of colour. But you are also appealing to emotion: empathy for people of colour who feel attacked.

You say: ‘Much of the wealth of Bristol and other British cities was based on slavery. Is this something we should be proud of?’

You are making a rational point: that British society should be honest about the wrongs of its past. But you are also appealing to emotion: shame at our participation in those wrongs.

You say: ‘Colston was symbolically raised above people of colour; the people from whose slavery he made his money were locked in chains at the bottom of ships, left to die from dehydration and disease, thrown overboard when they did so that he could say they had been lost at sea and could claim the insurance.’

You are making a rational point: success achieved by exploiting people should not be celebrated. But you are also appealing to emotion: anger at this exploitation.

You could use pathos on the other side of the debate, too. You could say: ‘If we edit out our past, soon we will lose all sense of ourselves; we will no longer know who we are.’

You are making a rational point: a national community needs a sense of its own history. But you are also appealing to emotion: fear of losing our identity.

So, emotion is not as separate from reason as it seems; logos and pathos work hand in hand. It’s perfectly possible to make an argument which is both strongly rational and powered by emotion.

Once more with both feeling and thought …

Monday, January 18, 2021

Recommended book #5 - Pros and Cons

 First published in 1896 and now in its 19th edition, Pros and Cons is the standard reference work for every debater. It lists the key arguments for and against all the major debate topics, and is regularly updated as new topics come on stream. It is essential packing for all debate competitions (along with The Debating Book: everything you ever need to know about debating). If you take it in hard copy, you will be allowed to refer to it in prep time. 


Don't make the mistake, though, of thinking that having good arguments will be enough by itself for you to win the debate; what matters is how you use them. But this is still an excellent book, and is well worth reading between debates, as it will make you very well informed.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Think like a debater #5 - when is violence justified?


A man takes out a gun. He shoots another man in the head, killing him.

What do you think about that?

Simple. It’s wrong.

 Isn’t it?

Let’s look again.

The man who is shot is in a crowded Tube train and has a suicide bomb strapped round his waist which he is about to detonate, killing everyone on the train. The man who does the shooting is a police officer.

Is it still wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is a soldier in an army representing a government which is responsible for the genocidal murder of thousands of people, and the kidnap and rape of many more. If the army is not stopped, they will continue to murder, kidnap and rape. The man who does the shooting is part of a different army, trying to stop the first one.

Is that wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is part of an army invading your country, threatening to take it over, take away your freedom, and run it for the benefit of a different country. The man who does the shooting is part of your country’s army and is trying to stop him.

Is that wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is part of an army already occupying your country, running it for the benefit of another country. The man who does the shooting is part of an army trying to get that army out of your country.

Is that wrong?

Violence, you can see, is not a simple matter.

Some people are uncompromising pacifists. That means they believe all violence, of any sort, in any circumstances, is wrong. That does make matters simple. But in another way, it makes them more complicated, as the dilemmas above show.

What if you aren’t an all out pacifist? When is violence right?

Here are three possible occasions.

1. If violence prevents a greater evil. All the examples above could fall into that category.

Problem: what started out as preventing an evil can end up becoming as great, if not a greater evil, itself. You don’t have to look very far into history to see this happening: revolutions which end up imposing a tyranny even greater than the one they were trying to overthrow, wars which go on long past their original cause, police who act with brutality out of proportion to the need to control crime.

2. If it is legitimate.

Problem: what is legitimate, and who gets to decide? ‘Legitimate’ literally means ‘lawful’; laws are set by the state. If you trust the state you are living in, you respect the laws which allow the state to use violence in protection of its citizens, usually through the actions of the police or armed forces. One definition of a civilised society is one in which the state has a monopoly of violence, so only police and armed forces are allowed to use violence. Most people find this preferable to a society in which anyone can use violence to get their way. But what if the instruments of the state misuse the powers given them? What if the police unfairly target a particular minority group? What if the government launches a war you think is unjust? Should you resist the state’s use of violence in these cases, even though it is, in the state’s terms, legitimate?

3. If it is used in a just cause.

Problem: how do we decide what is a just cause? And how much, and what sort of violence can be used, even in a just cause?

 ‘Just war theory’ deals with these questions. The most common principles for a ‘just war’ are that:

It is a last resort, and all other means of resolving the conflict have been exhausted (problem: how can you tell?)

It is fought to remedy or prevent a serious injustice (problem: who decides what is an injustice?)

The use of violence is proportionate, and non-combatants are not involved (problem: who decides what is proportionate? Who decides who the combatants are?)

Violence is not going to go away. Nor is it a simple matter to decide when it can or should be used. It is an issue which presents a lot of problems to think about and debate.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would arm the police
  • This house believes war is always wrong
  • This house would create a European army
  • This house would introduce a year’s compulsory military service for all 18 year olds
  • This house supports the pre-emptive killing of suspected terrorists
  • This house would assassinate dictators
  • This house would defund the police
  • This house would abolish the armed forces
  • This house would not use nuclear weapons
  • This house would allow householders to shoot burglars

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #2 - logos

Fans of the 1960s sci fi series Star Trek will remember the character Mr Spock. Mr Spock was a Vulcan. Vulcans (as well as being extra-terrestrial humanoids) are totally rational creatures. They think, they reason, they weigh up the evidence and they come to logical conclusions. ‘That would appear logical, Captain’, was Mr Spock’s catchphrase.

You’ve probably noticed that we humans are not the same as Vulcans. We’re swayed by all kinds of things that have nothing to do with logic: our ever changing emotions; what the people around us think and do; a need to protect ourselves from attack.

However, debating is meant to be a place where Mr Spock would feel at home; a place where reason rules supreme, where only evidence, logic and argument matter. In British Parliamentary debating, the quality of the argument is supposed to be the only factor considered by judges.

This brings us to the second in Aristotle’s trinity: logos. In his Rhetoric, he uses it to mean ‘reasoned discourse’.

What is ‘reasoned discourse’?

This is a very big subject. It is in fact almost an entire subject, in the sense of a school or university subject, called Critical Thinking. Critical Thinking analyses arguments to see if they are logically coherent and hold together. It’s not possible to teach everything you need to know about Critical Thinking in one blogpost; it could fill several books. However, we can look at the basic building block of reasoned discourse, the syllogism, and how you might use it in a debate.

Syllogisms are made out of premises and conclusions. Premises are statements which, when put together in a certain way, lead to conclusions. Usually the first premise is more general, and is known as the major premise; the second premise is more specific, and is known as the minor premise.

To give an example. Suppose you are debating that ever popular motion, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational’, and you are speaking for the opposition. You might want to argue that single-sex schools are better for girls because they tend to get better GCSE results. Your argument might therefore go:

Major premise

 Young people’s life chances are improved by having better GCSE results.

Minor premise

Girls’ schools get better GCSE results than co-ed schools.

Both of these premises are virtually beyond challenge. The first is extremely hard to argue against, and the second is a matter of fact. Put them together, and you come to a conclusion:


Therefore, girls’ life chances are improved by going to single-sex schools.

This is a syllogism. When you use a syllogism, you are using reasoned discourse, or ‘logic’, a word derived from ‘logos’.  This is what Aristotle means when he refers to the importance of ‘logos’ in rhetoric - the art of persuading that is at the heart of debating.

If we were all entirely rational creatures (like Mr Spock), that would be enough. But of course we’re not. While the structure of major premise - minor premise - conclusion might underpin your speech, if every paragraph of your speech follows the same format, you will soon lose your audience. More likely, your speech will go like this:

‘Imagine a young woman setting out on her life. How much better it will be if she is equipped with strong exam results; the kind of strong exam results that single-sex schools provide. Single-sex schools give girls confidence, self-belief and success. Isn’t that more important than “learning how to get on with boys”?’

The logical syllogism I described is present in this speech. But it also appeals to emotion: students’ anxiety about exams; parents’ love for their children. Emotion plays a much greater role in persuading people, and therefore in debating, than anyone likes to admit. We’ll look at it in our post on the last element in Aristotle’s trinity of persuasion: pathos.