Ethos, logos and pathos are often celebrated as the Three Musketeers of Rhetoric. However, they can be much more menacing than people realise. They distort logic, they cloud reason and they manipulate judgment.

Ethos is probably one of the most commonly used and least commonly detected forms of rhetoric. Ethos is when a speaker attempts to invoke authority or credibility (either over themselves or someone else) to persuade an audience.

How many times have you heard someone say: ‘well, with twenty-four years of experience under my belt’, or ‘trust me, I was there’, or perhaps even ‘I think as an award winning X I can confidently say Y’? These are all examples of using credentials to invoke authority; these are all examples of ethos.

So why is ethos dangerous? It is dangerous because sometimes you can have twenty-four years of experience under your belt and still be a useless buffoon who makes catastrophically bad decisions. The logical fallacy is to assume that time equates to experience.

A British politician recently gave a speech in which he said ‘I was in a factory in Manchester last week….’ Simply by saying this, members of the audience were more sympathetic and less critical of his argument because they automatically assumed that his experience equated to understanding. Rookie error!

As well as this, people often use ethos to cloud their arguments (or lack or arguments in some cases – Just look at Donald Trump). When people like you as a person, they are less likely to scrutinise your arguments at the level of detail that democracy demands.

For example, Nigel Farage gave a speech in 2010 when he started off by saying: ‘The most common question I get asked is: Nigel, are you racist and do you hate Germans? Now, of course I’m not racist. My wife is German. If anyone appreciates the efficiencies of a German-run household it’s me!’ The reason that this was at the beginning of his speech, was that he wanted to clear his name, and use ethos to win over his audience. And the shocking thing was, it worked! You could sense the change of atmosphere in the room. The combination of humour and ethos changed the audience’s perception before he’d even begun talking about policy. On a side note, people thought he was racist because of his policies not his marital status.

To clarify, the logical syllogism here goes along the lines of:

  1. If someone hates Germans then they are racist
  2. Nigel Farage doesn’t hate Germans
  3. Therefore, Nigel Farage is not racist

This is a disjunctive logical syllogism, however, it is a fallacy as racism isn’t confined to people who don’t hate Germans. For example, Mr. X might like Germans, but he can still hate all European nationals, therefore Mr. X is racist. The syllogism is called modus tellendo ponens. 

Farage, and many other politicians, also like to use the phrase ‘I am not a career politician’. This is also ethos. You are characterising a career politician (normally as something undesirable) and then distancing your own character from it.

If you attack someone else’s ethos it is called ad hominem. For example, ‘how can we trust John? He is, after all, a lying, devil-worshipping heathen!’. In this instance, you are not targeting John’s argument but rather his ethos.

Ethos is like a cad, it is charming, sophisticated, but underneath the façade you often find a decrepit argument clinging onto a deceitful motive. Next time you find yourself automatically liking a speaker, ask yourself, is this genuine, or is it just another case of elusive ethos…

13 thoughts on “Defence Against the Dark Arts: Elusive Ethos

  1. Guy — Well done. When I talk to students about ethos, logos and pathos, I always give them the same warning you did about ethos. Typically, I start my talk by telling the students that they are as important as any audience I will ever address, because who know what they will become? “I might have a future President of the United States in this audience…” Then, when I talk about ethos, I tell them that I have already used it on them. When they look mystified, I repeat what I said about them being as important as audience I will ever address. Then they realize how subtle (and treacherous) ethos can be.


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