Fintan O’Toole in his Irish Times column this week ridiculed the very idea of having an ethos and mocked Catholics for having one, but can anyone really live without an ethos?
O’Toole thinks that ‘ethos’ is a Latin word. He has either never read or has forgotten about Aristotle’s Ethics, one the foundational texts of western civilisation. In the second book of this remarkable work the Greek philosopher discusses the two meanings of ethos, i.e. character and habit, and shows how they are the root of ethics. (note 1)
What we do follows from what we are and good habits follow from a good character, according to Aristotle. In the same way, the repetition of bad actions becomes a bad habit, a vice.
Fintan O’Toole, in his article, laments that those who appeal to a religious ethos, in school for instance, have changed their attitudes through time. What is supposed to be, at least in his interpretation, solid and permanent is only arbitrary and contingent.
Had he read Aristotle, he would have learned that in practical matters we deal not only with unchanging general principles but also with particular situations. In practical deliberations the task of the wise person is precisely to translate general rules into specific right actions that necessarily take the whole context into consideration.
Something might be more (or less) tolerated today than in the past not because it has suddenly became right but because the context makes a higher ideal unachievable. (This is different from doing something that straight-forwardly contradicts your ethos, for example, opposing euthanasia yesterday and supporting it today as the Brothers of Charity in Belgium have just done).
“Jesus has apparently changed his mind”, write O’Toole in his mocking way. No, he has not but in different contexts his followers will come to different conclusions even if they appeal to the same unchanged values.
O’Toole derides Catholics for their flexibility with regard to their ethos in schools. Paradoxically, he would like them to be more rigid, less arbitrary, and suggests that ethos is a word that should have no place in public services at all. But is this possible?
Even democracy, which according to him should replace ethos in public discourse, has its own moral character. It is based on the normative principle that common deliberations should be achieved through wide consensus rather than on the will of just one or a few rulers. Democracy has an ethos because everything that is good, everything that is ethically relevant, must be based on some normative principles. But is majority opinion automatically right? And if it isn’t, what ethos do we judge it to be incorrect by?
The Irish Times, where Fintan O’Toole appears regularly, has its own principles  among which we find, for example, “The promotion of a friendly society where the quality of life is enriched by the standards of its education, its art, its culture and its recreational facilities, and where the quality of spirit is instinct with Christian values, but free from all religious bias and discrimination” This is part of their ethos.
Ethos is a word for unchanging values in changing contexts. Without a moral character, persons and institutions are subjected to the arbitrary control of those who are in power at the time.
Ultimately, the questions is not if we can achieve any good without an ethos. We can’t. But rather, what values, what principles, what good should lead our evaluations? What ethos? Fintan O’Toole himself has an ethos, a governing principle, his newspaper has one, we all have one.
- In ancient Greek character (ἦθος ) and habit (ἔθος) are very similar words.