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Logos, Ethos, and Pathos

When we look at an argument, there are often three distinct ways a rhetor can build an argument.  This is not to say that these three modes are exclusive, simply that we can always boil down any argument or piece of rhetoric into at least one of these three components, and quite often, the most successful pieces of rhetoric utilize all three.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation first:

You and three friends are hanging out, and you all decide to go eat.  You have absolutely no opinion, but since you are driving, the decision is ultimately up to you.  Each of your friends attempts to persuade you to choose their restaurant.

Friend A says: “Well, Tommy’s is by far the closest restaurant to where we are right now, and so it saves us both time and it saves you gas money.  Tommy’s is also relatively inexpensive, so we could each eat for less than ten dollars.  This is likely going to be the cheapest restaurant available.  Tommy’s is clearly the best choice as it saves us money and time.”

Friend B says: “But Tommy’s only serves meat, and meat is murder! Don’t you feel bad for those poor cows? They are raised in tiny pens, forced to sit and eat most of their lives, and then they go off to a slaughterhouse!  It is so barbaric that we eat processed, mechanical meat like that.  We’d all feel better if we went to Vegan Joe’s.  Everything there is totally animal free, so we could all feel good about not hurting animals in any way.  We’ll all feel much better afterwards, I promise.”

Friend C says: “Seeing as I’m only one class away from getting my AS in Nutrition, and I am going to be going to UCLA next semester to get my BS in Nutrition, I think we should go to Robin’s.  From my view, everything there is healthier for you, and also, it would be far fairer if we went to a place where everyone can eat whatever they want.  Robin’s serves plenty of vegan meals as well as burgers, so this is the most fair answer, and again, it is definitely the healthiest. Trust me, I know.”

Who do you side with?  Each of these arguments is one of the modes personified, meaning that they are attempting to be pure in one way or another.  Really, what we are seeing are the Rhetorical Appeals in action.

The Rhetorical Appeals are the three basic “types” or “styles” of persuasion that we use.  They are Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.  Each of these appeals serves to target a specific aspect of our humanity, and each has a distinct character and system.

Logos is logic, or rather the mind. When we use Logos, we are attempting to use logic to prove our position to be true. Logos prefers to use logical constructs like deductive reasoning as well as quantitative data like numbers.   Logic is very much about showing what can be proven in empiric ways, meaning not something that can be interpreted. Friend A is focusing on data that he knows cannot be disproven logically, namely that Tommy’s is in fact closer (1 mile is always going to be less than 2 miles), and that Tommy’s is cheaper (ten is always going to be less than 15).

The advantage of Logos is clear: You can be logically correct. If you utilize logos properly, you can empirically prove that your position is valid, if not sound. This gives you a huge advantage as you can point to almost irrefutable evidence quite often.

The disadvantage is also clear: humans are not logical creatures. Humans will often behave in irrational ways, and again, we all have heard perfectly logical arguments and still chosen not to listen to them. You can be as logical as you want, but plenty of people will refuse to listen. Try being logical with a child and see how far that gets you.

Pathos is passion, emotions, or rather, the heart. When we use Pathos, we are attempting to make our audience feel a particular way, and we are hoping that because they feel something, they will listen to our position.   When we try to scare people, we use Pathos. When we try to guilt people, we use Pathos. Even trying to create lust, namely the old adage that sex sells, we are using Pathos.   Friend B is focusing on making us feel bad for wanting to eat meat and offering us the chance to feel good for not doing so. Friend B is clearly trying to just make us emotional, and he/she offers no logical evidence why Vegan Joe’s is the best choice. Friend B is simply trying to make us feel guilty and hope that the guilt we feel influences our decision.

The advantage of Pathos is that humans are inherently emotional creatures. We can control how we react to our emotions, but we cannot control what we feel. You cannot necessarily stop feeling anger that someone said something cruel to you, but you can control how react to that anger. Since we are emotional creatures, pathos can very easily make us feel many things, and again, not everyone is very good at controlling their reactions to emotions. This is again particularly true with younger humans. Everyone feels, and many emotions can cross cultural barriers as most people will feel sad if they see a puppy getting kicked.

The disadvantage of Pathos is that emotions are very much like a drug: They hit hard at first, but you develop a resistance and need more. What scares you at first is not going to scare you as bad the second time, or the third, or the fourth. Eventually, an audience becomes dulled to specific emotions, so you have to work harder and harder to invoke them. Pathos works well in the beginning, but it fades very quickly.

Ethos is ethics and character, or rather the soul. When we use Ethos, we are attempting to do one of two things: We either want to show that the argument is inherently fair or socially acceptable (ethics), or we want the audience to respect and identify with the speaker. When you see a celebrity endorsement, you are seeing Ethos at work. When you see someone throw around their credentials or experience, that is Ethos at work. When someone is trying to make it clear what is the most socially acceptable or socially favored decision, that is Ethos. Friend C focused on his/her own experience as a student to justify their decision. Friend C did not offer any specific information, simply his/her own weight as being learned in the matter. Friend C also emphasizes what is “fair”, an important ethical concern in American culture. Friend C is not offering numbers like A or emotions like B, but instead is offering something a bit more complex.

The advantage of Ethos is that humans are inherently social creatures. We cannot help but want to belong with other people, and we have an innate drive to be around others in some form. Ethos appeals to this by trying to place us on the side of society, making us feel secure and that we belong. We also cannot help but want to emulate those we respect, our leaders, as humans are also inherently hierarchal creatures. We want to be like those we value, and we want to reject those we devalue. Ethos is very powerful, and we often are unaware of how much we are influenced by those around us and those we admire.

The disadvantage of Ethos is that character and ethics are subjective concepts, and they change quite easily depending on the audience. A strong ethical argument to one audience may be horrific or upsetting to another audience, so Ethos is very limited to specific societies and cultures. Ethos does not always translate well to a large audience, and it is very rare to find individuals that can transcend cultural or linguistic barriers.  Ethos is highly effective, but it is also highly limited.

These three appeals are the heart of argumentation, and any good rhetor is going to know how to mix and match all three together. As each has a specific weakness and strength, by mixing them together, a rhetor can create a very effective piece of persuasion.

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