The key public health officials in the United States have been criticized for their work in the Ebola outbreak of 2014–15 by citizens, public officials, and health scholars from multiple disciplines. There are numerous grounds for these complaints, but underlying many of them was the perception of “failed leadership” that is here traced in substantial part to the embodiment of a positionality based in a presumed logos-based power instead of an ethos-based relationship between public health expert and public. Because any leader’s public ethos is dependent on the cultural ethos of audiences who promote them to leadership, this essay combines the Aristotelian topoi for ethos (goodsense, goodwill, goodness) and contemporary redefinitions of ethos as cultural-level phenomena (either “dwelling places,” ideologies, or ethical and cultural codes) to conceptualize ethos as the activation, rebuilding, or maintenance of relationships among different social positions: publics and institutions. The complexities of the Ebola epidemic—with its national and international dimensions and its partially faulty scientific grounding—make visible the predisposition toward positional gaps between publics and public experts regarding interests (eunoia) and goods (arête), with concomitant difficulties for the sharing of practical wisdom (phronesis). Aristotle was correct that such gaps cannot be bridged by logos, and the pervasive insistence on more logos as corrective therefore may contribute to public mistrust of all expertise.

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