|Ethos in Action|
Ta-da! You've just defined ethos.
Ethos is one of Aristotle's basic rhetorical categories, and any argument that hinges on the character of the speaker is using it. Aristotle puts it like this: "We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is..." In other words, we believe good men because they are good, not because they are experts. And this gets really interesting in modern culture. Consider, for example, the curious case of Tiger Woods.
At a certain point, Tiger Woods could pretty much sell anything. To anyone. He was an endorsement powerhouse, associated with an increasingly diverse series of products, from Buicks to watches to razor blades. Some of these endorsements made logical sense. Woods is, after all an professional golfer, so he is likely to be qualified to sell golf clubs for Titleist or golf apparel for Nike.
|This is not an Escalade.|
Think about that for a second. I'm married to a mechanic. We have mechanic friends. If one of those guys tells me to buy a specific car, I consider it. But Tiger, cute though he was, just didn't logically have the knowledge a mechanic has. Weird, right?
Here's why it works. When Tiger Woods' face was on all these random products, he was basically the golden boy of the PGA, and the world in general. He was attractive, but in a clean cut, nice-guy, take-him-home-to-meet-the-family way. He was multi-ethnic and clearly non-white, but in such a friendly and relatable way that even the most conservative of households had trouble feeling threatened. He was talented, and charming, and he had such a lovely family. Remember that? We loved that guy!
|This is an Escalade.|
This was the moment when we collectively decided that maybe Tiger Woods shouldn't be making our purchasing decisions. Because this was the moment when he lost his ethos. Instead of coming off as America's "good man," a man we could trust to make the right choice for us, he became persona non grata. In a way, the absolute excellence of Tiger's ethos pre-Escalade was what led to his downfall. Because we believed him.
It is important to point out that Aristotle saw ethos as something confined to a specific speech at a specific time, with the speaker's previous performances of character as irrelevant. He also lived in a time before YouTube. These days, to Tiger Woods' chagrin, your ethos is a 24/7 proposition.
We're not internationally acclaimed pro golfers (one can only assume), but that doesn't mean ethos doesn't matter to us. We are personalities in our own way. Our ethos may not be responsible for multi-million dollar deals (yet), but it is responsible for a lot of the decisions others make about us. The ethos of others, conversely, is a big part of why we make some of the decisions we do.
|Bush takes his ethos for a ride.|
It has been said that arguments based on ethos are artificial in nature. And there is a certain degree of truth to that assessment. I'll get into that at a later date. The point today is that it works, and that we really ought to be aware of it. I would never advise anyone to manufacture a completely false ethos (just look at what happened to poor Tiger), but if you've ever answered the question "what's your greatest weakness," in a job interview with, "I'm kind of a perfectionist," you realize there's a fine line here.
If you're interested in Aristotle and his means of persuasion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an excellent online version of his Rhetoric. If you want to chat about any of this stuff, hit me in the comments or send me an email.