Whether you’re writing a white paper for school or work or are tasked with writing a speech, ethos will likely be an integral part of your writing strategy. As one of the modes of persuasion, ethos conveys the author’s credibility and knowledge about the topic at hand.
What is ethos?
Ethos, an ancient Greek word meaning “character,” is a rhetorical or written technique that appeals to an audience or reader’s ethics. Authors achieve ethos in their writing by demonstrating that they are a trustworthy source of accurate information.
Modes of persuasion
This method of persuasion was first described in On Rhetoric by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his work, Aristotle discusses ethos, in addition to the other rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos—and the sometimes-forgotten kairos. Logos strives to appeal to the reader’s logic while pathos appeals to an audience’s emotions. Kairos uses situational context and timeliness as a rhetorical strategy.
Although appealing to a reader’s ethos sets you up as an authoritative source of information, relying on it exclusively can make your message seem biased or dismissive. Strong persuasive writing balances all rhetorical appeals.
For example, appealing to your audience’s pathos using purposeful diction and anecdotes helps them better relate to your words and ideas through shared experiences. Conversely, logos bolsters ethos by presenting claims and evidence clearly and rationally.
Appealing to an audience’s kairos means that in addition to a balance of all three modes mentioned above, you’re using current circumstances and timeliness—such as an event, trend, or political movement, to bolster your argument.
The three components of ethos
Aristotle breaks down a successful ethical appeal using three parts, all of which come together to establish the author as a trustworthy expert:
This component of ethos demonstrates your intelligence and mastery of a subject matter.
For example, phronesis can include having firsthand experience that gives your opinion or perspective legitimacy, or you might have earned a doctorate degree in a particular topic lending your knowledge credibility.
Use of concrete examples to support your written argument and additional authoritative third-party sources also lends phronesis to your work.
Establishing that your message is based on good moral intent and sound reasoning builds ethos in your writing. Arete is organizing your argument step by step so it guides the audience through your train of thought.
When done effectively, your audience should clearly see why your perspective is justified and necessary.
While arete focuses on the virtue of your message, eunoia is your virtuous intent and goodwill as a messenger. Ultimately, eunoia in ethos builds your charisma and likability.
It signals to the audience that your end goal as an author is based on good intentions in the best interest of the reader.
These components as a whole strengthen ethos, making you appear more reliable as a writer.
What is ethos in writing?
Although Aristotle’s concept of ethos as a persuasive rhetorical strategy is as old as ancient Greece, there are many ways that modern writers use it today. Below are a few ways ethos is found in business, academia, and more.
- Expert witness reports: In a legal case, attorneys might use an expert witness report that’s written by a physician or other authoritative subject matter expert. These written reports rely on the expert’s knowledge and skill in an area to strengthen the ethos in an attorney’s argument.
- Memoir: A memoir is a first-person account of a notable moment in an author’s life. It conveys their personal experiences and their perspective about those experiences, making them a reliable voice for the narrative.
- News articles: A news article that’s written with ethos as a guiding principle engages the reader in a clear, unbiased, and fair way. Journalists who write news articles are expected to research the most current information that’s available and report the facts in a way that serves the reader’s best interest.
- Opposite editorial: An opposite editorial, or op-ed, is an article that’s based on the author’s personal opinion. In it, the author must appeal to the ethos of their reader by establishing themselves as reliable and knowledgeable and by building a sound argument.
- Print or online advertisements: Ads are designed to encourage a consumer to purchase a product or take some form of action. However, without a balanced ethos in its messaging—for example, if a brand hasn’t established its eunoia—the audience might hesitate. This is why some brands choose to leverage the clout of a public figure, like a celebrity, athlete, or influencer who’s built a trustworthy reputation with its audience.
Examples of ethos
Ethos is often at play in speeches, literature, and marketing, such as in the examples below.
In the first excerpt, Hillary Clinton, who was first lady at the time, bolsters her credibility and authority to speak on women-focused issues by noting that she’s had twenty-five years of experience doing so. Later, she draws on her firsthand accounts of meeting women across all parts of the world. Acknowledging her encounters with women from various parts of the world is particularly relevant to the speech’s ethical appeal because it was delivered at an international conference.
“Over the past twenty-five years, I have worked persistently on issues relating to women, children, and families. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women in my own country and around the world.”
“. . . I have met mothers in Indonesia. I have met working parents in Denmark. I have met women in South Africa.”
—Clinton at the fourth World Conference of the United Nations
In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonist’s father Atticus Finch is an attorney addressing the jury at a trial. In this address, he appeals to each jury member’s ethos. Atticus accomplishes this by calling them to do the right thing by their verdict and appealing to their sense of virtue and integrity.
“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”
—Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In a commercial for its Q50 luxury vehicle, car manufacturer Infiniti partnered with NBA basketball player Stephen Curry in a car commercial that appeals to ethos. Throughout the commercial, Curry is shown skillfully dribbling two basketballs on a court while cut scenes of the Q50 are introduced. Meanwhile, throughout these visual scenes, there is voiceover:
“This is what performance sounds like . . . feels like . . . behaves like.”
—Curry in a commercial for Infiniti
Curry concludes the commercial by shooting and scoring a basket from the court’s three-point line.
What is ethos?
Ethos uses an author or speaker’s credibility and authority as the basis for a written or rhetorical argument. It relies on the writer’s good character or reputation to build trust with the audience.
What is the purpose of ethos?
The purpose of ethos is an ethical appeal to convince an audience of the speaker’s or author’s integrity and expertise.
When is ethos used in writing?
You might unknowingly encounter ethos in written formats like a marketing advertisement, a political campaign speech, or a technical report for work. It can also be used by fiction writers to establish a narrator’s credibility.