How To Talk About Ethos In An Essay

Posted on by Nall

I've always wondered why candidates have to "approve this message"; I mean, if President Obama is on camera talking about himself, then can't I assume he approves the message? Why does he have to state that he approves it at the end?

There's certainly a law that governs what must be said at the end of a political advertisement, or else President Obama wouldn't say exactly the same thing as every other politician at the end of an ad, but there's also an element of persuasion at work here. By appearing on camera saying that he approves the content, the President is giving the ad credibility. It's about him, his work, and his beliefs, and by saying he has approved the ad, President Obama is saying, "You can trust this information about me."

This appeal to credibility is known as "ethos." Ethos is a method of persuasion in which the speaker or writer (the "rhetor") attempts to persuade the audience by demonstrating his own credibility or authority. I think the best way to understand this kind of appeal to the credibility of the author is to look at the three most common ways a rhetor attempts to demonstrate authority on a topic.

By now, you've hopefully gotten an idea of what ethos is: an attempt to persuade by appealing to authority or credibility. You might be wondering, though, what ethos looks like in writing or in speaking. Here are a few examples:

  • References to work experience or life experience related to the topic. When an author writing about the stock market talks about his years working for an investment bank, that's an appeal to credibility.

  • References to college degrees or awards related to the topic. When your biology instructor makes clear in the syllabus that he has a PhD in biology and that you'll be using the textbook he's written for the class, he's reminding you of his authority and credibility on the subject.

  • References to the character of the writer. When a politician writes in a campaign brochure about his years of public service and the contributions he's made to the community, he's letting you know he's trustworthy, a good person, and a credible source of information about the community and the issues that affect it.

  • The use of supporting sources written by authorities on the subject. When a student writes a paper about why school hours should be changed and uses quotations from principals, teachers, and school board members (all of whom know something about the topic), he's borrowing their credibility and authority to increase his own.

  • References to symbols that represent authority. When a candidate gives a speech in front of an American flag, he or she is associating him- or herself with the symbol and borrowing the authority it represents.

See also:

Fallacious Ethos


How to Use Ethos

How to Use Ethos. The basic approach behind using ethos as a mode of persuasion is that it is an appeal that focuses on the character of the writer or speaker. In other words, the very character of the writer or speaker is the basis for agreeing or disagreeing with what he is arguing. With that in mind, the writer should be able to show that he is a credible person whom his readers can believe and leave doubts behind. Establishing the ethos of the writer can be attained through several steps.

One step is for the writer to show at the onset that he has wide knowledge on the topic. Before actually writing down his arguments, the writer should first indicate that he knows the topic very well or that he has read many resources about the subject. He may impress upon the mind of the reader that he has actually researched carefully. On the topic of Utilitarianism, for example, the writer may begin with:

Jeremy Bentham says that the foundation of what is good rests on those which bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Picking up from where Bentham left, John Stuart Mill further argued that, more than mere happiness, spiritual and intellectual pleasures outweigh physical pleasures. But as far as the philosophy of Utilitarianism is concerned, things do not simply end there. Act Utilitarians contend that the consequences of our actions should be the determining factor of what is good. On the other hand, Rule Utilitarians argue that the rules governing our actions should be the ultimate guidelines for identifying what is good from otherwise.

Another step is for the writer to show that he has close association with the topic. For example, if the writer is arguing that secondhand smoking should be banned in public places, he may tell his readers that although he is a non-smoker he has developed emphysema after having been exposed to secondhand smoke in bars for more than five years. This will show that the writer has actual experience that directly relates to his contention, thereby giving his readers that what he is saying has substance.

In some cases, the use of ethos may also be shown by simply telling the readers that the writer is an authority on the topic. For example, if the topic is related to health and medicine, the writer may inform his readers that he is a medical practitioner for more than ten years. Or if the topic is about the law, the writer may tell his readers that he has previously worked for the city prosecutor's office.

The most important thing to remember in knowing how to use ethos is that this approach focuses more on the character of the writer or speaker rather than the actual content of his arguments. To a certain degree, the weight of the writer's arguments will depend on his character.

You may also want to read how to use Pathos, or how to use Logos, or know what a Rhetorical argument is.

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