Ethos in Debating

In a debate, it is not enough to present an infinite number of facts and figures. If you want to win over the audience, they must accept you as the vir bonus (= virtuous character) in the debate. They need to see why your position is ethically sound and proper. Ethos (in Greek: ἔθος) is a term to describe your moral stance. Luckily, most motions allow for a balanced debate which gives both sides a chance to be “on the good side” or to claim moral superiority.

Besides pathos (impact) and logos (argumentation), ethos is at the core of Aristotle’s view on rhetorics. In a debate, your audience must understand you’re not a Gorgias or Goebbels, but rather Jeanne d’Arc or Gandhi. Please note that it is generally not enough to peddle around with your values – you also need solid arguments.

Your ethos

In a debate, identify reasons why you represent the “good side” of the debate. You might be here to …

  • protect freedom, equality, and democracy,
  • find solutions thar benefit all sides of the debate,
  • find a good compromise,
  • help the debate to become a marvellous display of wisdom,
  • do what is right even if public opinion might be against you,
  • be fair and do justice to the other team’s arguments,
  • serve as an advocate for those who cannot speak up for themselves,
  • stand up against those who abuse their power,
  • to use your strengths as an orator for some common good.

Bad strategies regarding ethos

Avoid the impression of representing the “evil side”. You are not here to…

  • persuade the audience to act against their own interests or sense of morale,
  • emotionally manipulate anybody,
  • impress anyone,
  • to demonize the opposing side,
  • be right just for the sake of being right,
  • discriminate against anyone,
  • hurt, ridicule or intimidate the other side,
  • “destroy their arguments” (as it is often heard),
  • to give specific groups advantages over others.

Ethical qualities of a good speaker

In order to be accepted as a vir bonus, you must appear …

  • fair and impartial,
  • respectful and tactful,
  • responsible,
  • honest and authentic,
  • humble and practically-minded,
  • transparent, not having a secret agenda,
  • free of selfishness,

Things to avoid

In a debate, you can be passionate and aggressive, but avoid expressions thar reflect…

  • homophobia;
  • racism;
  • sexism;
  • ageism;
  • ableism
  • and other statements that violate human dignity.

Contrary to what can sometimes be heard in international discussions, universal human rights are not bound to cultural standards. They do not reflect “western dominance” but apply to all human beings likewise. They enable us call on moral principles that protect human dignity in all forms, protecting us from intolerance and persecution.

Also, you should avoid …

  • contradictions in your moral statements,
  • double standards and hypocrisy.