Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 16, 2012

These three concepts constitute Aristotle’s appeals: ethos, an appeal to character; pathos, an appeal to emotion; and logos, an appeal to logic. Although these rhetorical strategies have a longstanding history, this three-pronged model does not effectively represent honest rhetoric.

Ethos

Ethos usually manifests as an appeal to authority, in which the author explains that his argument comes from a credible source and is therefore correct. This is not a distinct type of argument, but actually a subset of logos. An appeal to authority, when done properly, forms a logical argument:

1. This authority figure is usually correct on this subject.
2. This authority figure claims X is true.
3. Therefore, X is probably true.

Of course, an appeal to authority can be done improperly, such as when it uses a non-expert or makes a more strict claim than it can (i.e., this authority figure claims X is true, therefore X must be true). Such incorrect applications are fallacious. But when used correctly, an appeal to authority—ethos—is simply a type of logos.

Sometimes, ethos may represent the reverse: an attempt to demonstrate that one’s opponent is not credible—an argument ad hominem. This type of argument is nearly always fallacious. And in this case as well, if it is not fallacious then it can be expressed as a logical argument and is therefore a subset of logos.

Pathos

Of Aristotle’s three strategies, pathos has the least sway. An appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy: it represents an attempt to subvert the reader’s sense of reason. According to Fallacy Files, “Appeals to emotion are always fallacious when intended to influence our beliefs, but they are sometimes reasonable when they aim to motivate us to act.” (More on this second clause in a future essay.)

The emotional appeal probably occurs more frequently than any other logical fallacy, but that makes it no less fallacious. A strong rhetorician makes frequent use of emotional appeals, but an honest debater uses emotion only as a supplement to logical argumentation, and only, as Fallacy Files explains, to motivate the reader to action.

Logos

Logos—the appeal to logic—represents the only true means of argumentation. Any other form of argument is, by definition, unsound. Logos is the only of Aristotle’s appeals that holds serious rational merit, and therefore deserves the greatest consideration. Ethos and pathos do not deserve to rest on the same plane as logos; any non-logical form of argumentation exists either to supplement or to subvert logic.

A Better Model

Sound argument rests not on three pillars, but on one: the pillar of logic. But there is no reason to consider argumentation as a single thing: one could devise a number of models to represent the process of rational thought in different terms. It could be represented as the unity of pure reason a priori and factual information a posteriori; it could be thought of as a logical core with branches representing the myriad logical fallacies. Either of these models would make a more effective model than Aristotle’s appeals, and surely there exist even better models than these.

Instead of teaching Aristotle’s rhetorical devices to debaters and writers, we should teach how to speak and write persuasively without resorting to logical fallacies, and how to identify and respond to fallacious reasoning when others use it. If people understand how to form strong logical arguments and avoid emotional appeals and reactions, we as a society will be empowered to make wiser decisions—and side with the people who are the most correct rather than the most persuasive.

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2 Responses to “Ethos, Pathos, Logos”

  1. phynnboi said

    My main problem with appeals to authority is that they’re mostly used not as actual arguments, but as conversation killers. They’re someone saying, “Go read [lengthy body of work they know you won’t read], then come back and we’ll talk,” and if you /have/ read the work, “Go read it again, because you obviously didn’t understand it.” Or, “Well, [authority figure] says different, and they know more than you, so you’re wrong.” Anything to avoid having to bring up and defend actual arguments.

    I look forward to your defense of appeals to emotion to motivate action. Resorting to a tactic that subverts its audience’s sense of reason seems contrary to a philosophy that holds logic as the highest value of argumentation! One could argue something along the lines of, “We’re only human, here, and humans need an emotional kick to get moving,” but then, that was probably also part of Aristotle’s justification for including pathos in his system of rhetoric, so we’ve come full circle! (Or maybe it wasn’t? I dunno, I haven’t read it.)

    As for the better model, I think we need at least two pillars: logic and evidence. The former does not necessarily entail the latter: Solipsism is an example of logic in the absence (defiance?) of evidence. I’d also add a pillar for a system addressing uncertainty (the necessity of induction and probabilities in the real world), since it’s quite possible to create logically sound arguments into which one plugs anecdotal evidence.

    • I think you’re right about evidence. I didn’t mention it in my essay, but it is very important. You’re also right about appeals to authority; most of the time, people use them incorrectly.

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