Ethos

Learning Objective

  • Describe appeals to ethos
  • Differentiate between types of rhetorical appeals

Appeals to Ethos

Ethos is the defining character or disposition of a person, community, or group. When we refer to ethos as a rhetorical appeal, we are referring to the ways in which credibility, or good character, is established and maintained. As a reader, viewer, or consumer, you need to be aware of the ways an individual or artifact manipulates ethos appeals to strengthen persuasiveness. As an author, you need to craft strong ethos appeals to highlight the credibility of your own work.

Good speakers or writers lead the audience to feel comfortable with their knowledge of a topic. The audience sees them as people worth listening to—clear or insightful thinkers, or at least people who are well informed and genuinely interested in the topic.

When you evaluate an appeal to ethos, you examine how successfully a speaker or writer establishes authority or credibility with his or her intended audience. You ask yourself what elements of the essay or speech would cause an audience to feel that the author is (or is not) trustworthy and credible.

Author’s Background

The first and most obvious marker of ethos is the author’s background. Ask yourself whether the writer’s education or experience provides credibility to speak or write about this issue. Will the audience be persuaded that this individual has authority in this area? Evaluating an appeal to ethos should not stop there, however.

Evidence and Sources

You should also consider the evidence and sources used by the author. Investigate whether the writer or speaker has cited sources or provided opportunities for the audience to access further information on the issue. Does the writer provide complete and accurate information about the issue? Does the writer use the evidence fairly? Does he or she avoid selective use of evidence or other types of manipulation of data? Fair incorporation of credible evidence from authoritative, accessible sources builds ethos.

Acknowledgment of Opposition and Complexity

Finally, consider the author’s willingness to examine the scope and depth of the issue, including arguments that may oppose the author’s position. Does the writer demonstrate familiarity with different opinions and perspectives? Does the writer speak respectfully about people who may have different opinions and perspectives? Does the writer use unbiased language? Does the writer accurately convey the positions of people with whom he or she disagrees? Does the writer avoid oversimplification? Full, even-handed treatment of topics is a marker of ethos.

Manipulative Appeals to Ethos

In a perfect world, everyone would tell the truth, and we could depend upon the credibility of speakers and authors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You would expect that news reporters would be objective and tell new stories based upon the facts; however, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Brian Williams all lost their jobs for plagiarizing or fabricating part of their news stories. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked after it was discovered that she made up “Jimmy,” an eight-year-old heroin addict (Prince, 2010). Brian Williams was fired as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for exaggerating his role in the Iraq War.

Others have become infamous for claiming academic degrees that they didn’t earn as in the case of Marilee Jones. At the time of discovery, she was Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After 28 years of employment, it was determined that she never graduated from college (Lewin, 2007). However, on her website (http://www.marileejones.com) she is still promoting herself as “a sought-after speaker, consultant and author” (para. 1) and “one of the nation’s most experienced College Admissions Deans” (para. 2).

Establishing Ethos

Establishing ethos in your own writing is all about using credibility—either your own or that of your sources—in order to be persuasive. Essentially, ethos is about believability. Will your audience find you believable? What can you do to ensure that they do?

You can establish ethos—or credibility—in two basic ways: you can use or build your own credibility on a topic, or you can use credible sources, which, in turn, builds your credibility as a writer.

Credibility is extremely important in building an argument, so, even if you don’t have a lot of built-in credibility or experience with a topic, it’s important for you to work on your credibility by integrating the credibility of others into your argument.

Aristotle argued that ethos was the most powerful of the modes of persuasion, and while you may disagree, you can’t discount its power. After all, think about the way advertisers use ethos to get us to purchase products. Taylor Swift sells us music, and LeBron James sells us basketball. Their fame, names, and expertise are selling us products.

With the power of ethos in mind, here are some strategies you can use to help build your ethos in your arguments.

strategies for building ethos

If you have specific experience or education related to your issues, mention it in some way.

If you don’t have specific experience or education related to your issue, make sure you find sources from authors who do. When you integrate that source information, it’s best if you can address the credibility of your sources. When you have credible sources, you want to let your audience know about them. Introduce your sources with signal phrases that highlight their authority, such as, “Harvard Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Joseph Menson notes” or “According to a study by the University of Berkeley’s School of Economics.”  Highlight any other factors about the source that might accentuate credibility, such as the nature, length, or size of research studies.

Use a reasoned tone that is appropriate to your writing situation and will make you sound credible as a writer. Controversial issues can often bring out some extreme emotions in us when we write, but we have to avoid sounding extreme, especially in academic arguments. You may not convince everyone to agree with you, but you at least need your audience to listen to what you have to say.

Avoid logical fallacies that misuse ethos appeals, such as ad hominem, false authority, guilt by association, poisoning the well, transfer fallacy, name-calling, plain folk, and testimonial.

Kairos and Ethos

You can also use kairos as a strategy for building ethos. You’ll recall that kairos refers to a favorable moment for action. Most issues have energy or agency within certain time frames. Think about Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was the right speech for the right time. Choosing to write about an issue that has current energy and interest contributes to your ethos by presenting you as an engaged, aware writer who is willing to tackle important issues in critical times.

Summarizing Rhetorical Appeals

Rhetorical appeals are powerful tools of persuasion for writers and speakers. Now that you have learned to recognize, evaluate, and establish those appeals, apply them to your own college work and keep these basic principles in mind:

  1. Understand that appeals to logos are contextual and must be sufficient, typical, accurate, and relevant to be valid in an argument. Also, be aware that facts and data can be easily manipulated and misused.
  2. Be aware of appeals to pathos as both reader and writer. As a reader, be aware of how a piece works to connect through emotions, attitudes, values, and/or beliefs rather than through logos and ethos. As a writer, be careful not to overly rely on appeals to emotion.
  3. Establish ethos appeals by highlighting relevant education and experience, acknowledging opposition and complexity, and avoiding manipulative appeals.

Watch It

Watch this video to see one student share an analysis of ethos, pathos, and logos in an article he read for class.

You can view the transcript for “Analyze This: Modes of Persuasion” here (opens in new window).

Try It

 

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