Aristotle claims that there are three technical means of persuasion:
“Now the proofs furnished by the speech are of three kinds. The first depends upon the moral character of the speaker, the second upon putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind, the third upon the speech itself, in so far as it proves or seems to prove” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 3).
Each of these corresponds to the three means of persuasion:
- Ethos (Appeal to credibility): Persuasion through establishing the character of the speaker.
- Pathos (Appeal to emotion): Persuasion through putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind.
- Logos (Appeal to logic): Persuasion through proof or seeming proof.
For Aristotle, speech consists of three things: the speaker, the hearer, and the speech. These correspond to ethos, pathos, and logos, respectively. The first of these is the subject of this article.
Definition of Ethos
In rhetoric, ethos, from the Greek word for “character,” refers to persuasion through establishing the authority of the speaker.
According to Aristotle, people follow a trustworthy speaker more readily on almost all subjects and completely so if there are no objective criteria to decide the matter.
The orator is using ethos if their speech is delivered in a manner that makes them seem worthy of confidence (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 4).
The importance of ethos in rhetoric can readily be seen through Aristotle’s example: The orator must appear to be of a certain character because this will determine how the audience is disposed towards them.
One’s dispositions toward the speaker will make all the difference,
“…for when a man is favorably disposed towards one on whom he is passing judgement, he either thinks that the accused has committed no wrong at all or that his offence is trifling; but if he hates him, the reverse is the case.” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 4).
Effective use of ethos requires three qualities: good sense, virtue, and good will (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 5). These qualities are necessary and sufficient for the orator.
15 Examples of Ethos
Example 1: The Climate Expert
“As a leading climate scientist with years of experience researching this field, I can assure you that global warming is a pressing issue that requires an urgent and serious response.”
The first part of the argument above (“As a leading climate scientist with years of experience researching this field”) establishes the speaker’s credibility, which means that the primary means through which the speaker is trying to convince their audience is ethos. For a topic as complex as global warming, the average audience member is far more likely to listen to someone who establishes their credibility from the start than to someone who relies solely on pathos and logos.
Example 2: The Infectious Disease Expert
“I’ve dedicated over 40 years of my career to studying infectious diseases and their large-scale effects, so I can assert with full confidence that widespread vaccination is crucial for public health.”
It is easy to see that virtually anyone is more likely to trust the medical advice of someone who immediately establishes themselves as a seasoned professional than someone who limits their speech to logical arguments alone.
Example 3: Brand Credibility
The use of ethos is particularly frequent for brands. This is especially true when two competing brands have virtually indistinguishable products in terms of their use value. There would be no logical reason to prefer one brand to another, so each must try to appear more credible than the other.
Example 4: The Art Critic
“I’ve been an art critic for over 30 years and during that time I’ve never come across a contemporary work of art that has as many layers of meaning as this one.”
This example exploits the peculiar advantages of ethos in matters that have no objective criteria. As Aristotle said, “we feel confidence in a greater degree and more readily in persons of worth in regard to everything in general, but where there is no certainty and there is room for doubt, our confidence is absolute.” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 4).
Example 5: The Expert Witness
An expert witness is using ethos (their education, certification, experience, etc.) to establish their testimony as authoritative.
For example, an expert witness might be called up to give evidence about whether an image was doctored or if it was, indeed, the original image that is being presented. The jury is more likely to find the witness credible if they can established that they do indeed have expertise on the topic, making their statement more authoritative.
Example 6: The Seasoned Traveler
“Having visited over 60 countries around the world, my recommendations for which places to visit and which to avoid are based on my years of experience.”
In this example, the speaker is using ethos to establish trustworthiness in an area where the audience members are unlikely to have conflicting experiences. The sheer number of countries they have been to gives them some clout, although we may be having the wool pulled over our eyes if 45 of those countries were merely in transit!
Example 7: The Experienced Entrepreneur
“While I wasn’t born in a particularly well-off family, by age 22 I was already the CEO of a 100 million dollar company. I know what it’s like to go from zero to hundred when it comes to entrepreneurship, so you can rest assured that what I’m about to say is backed up by lived experience.”
The speaker’s appeal to their financial success story is an attempt to prime the audience and make the speech that will follow more persuasive and influential through the use of ethos.
Example 8: The Former Judge
“As a former judge who presided over hundreds of criminal justice cases, I’ve seen first hand what injustices our system often gives rise to.”
Not only is the speaker establishing their credibility from the start, but ethos is an especially well-suited persuasion technique in such a case because the matter at hand requires personal acquaintance with the topic. It’s not just that a judge will be more knowledgeable about criminal justice than the average person, but a judge would also have access to information that is simply unavailable for others, no matter how well-informed they may be.
Example 9: The Celebrity Endorsement
While most examples focus on how ethos can be used in speech or writing, we shouldn’t forget that ethos may also be expressed visually.
For example, using images of celebrities or doctors to advertise a product is an example of ethos, because the advertisement is trying to establish its credibility and trustworthiness.
Example 10: The Certified Personal Trainer
“As a certified personal trainer with years of experience coaching professional athletes as well as clients with diverse fitness goals, I can build a training and nutrition program that is a perfect fit for your goals.”
The speaker is using ethos in the first part of the speech to establish credibility. In the context of physical fitness, ethos often has a visual component along with the verbal: the speaker will probably be especially fit and they will make sure you see that because you’re far more likely to take advice from someone who already has the body you want.
Example 11: The Veteran Educator
“With 25 years of experience in teaching and a doctoral degree in education, I can assure you that early childhood learning lays a vital foundation for a child’s future academic and personal development.”
Here, the speaker uses their academic qualifications and extensive experience to convince the audience about the importance of early childhood education. The ethos is essential as it brings forth a certain level of expertise and credibility to the argument.
Example 12: The Renowned Chef
“Having trained in culinary schools around the world and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, I can assure you that the art of cooking is much more than just following recipes.”
In this case, the chef uses their international experience and association with esteemed restaurants to validate their point of view about cooking. This is an excellent example of ethos, as it makes the audience value the speaker’s perspective based on their distinguished background.
Example 13: The Skilled Craftsman
“Working as a craftsman for more than 30 years, mastering techniques of pottery and sculpture, I can vouch for the therapeutic benefits of hands-on artistry.”
The speaker uses ethos to enhance the weight of their perspective, drawing upon their lifelong experience in the field of craftsmanship. The audience would likely give more credence to the speaker’s argument due to their established authority in the subject.
Example 14: The Experienced Psychologist
“As a psychologist with over two decades of clinical experience and several research papers in the field of cognitive behavior, I strongly believe that maintaining a positive mindset is crucial for mental health.”
In this instance, the psychologist uses ethos, leveraging their years of practical experience and contribution to scientific research to advocate for the importance of a positive mindset. This use of ethos enhances the credibility of their argument, making the audience more likely to accept their viewpoint.
Example 15: The Professional Environmentalist
“As a professional environmentalist, who has spent the last 20 years advocating for sustainable practices and policies, I can confidently say that adopting renewable energy sources is essential for a sustainable future.”
Here, the speaker uses their long-term dedication to environmental issues and advocacy work to establish their credibility. The ethos in this argument underscores the importance of their message, making it more persuasive to the audience.
Strengths of Ethos
- Trust: In settings where the audience has little or no knowledge of the topic, the speaker’s appeals to ethos might be the most important means of persuasion. For example, if you know nothing about quantum physics, you may not be able to detect fallacies in arguments about it, and it’s not a subject that’s connected with any strong emotions, so the only thing you may rely on is the speaker’s credibility.
- Subjective topics: Ethos, as Aristotle noted, is especially useful in cases where there are no objective criteria to decide the matter. For example, the orator may make greater use of ethos when speaking about a work of art than when debating the merits of a mathematical proof.
Weaknesses of Ethos
- Insincerity: It is easy for the audience to perceive the speaker’s appeals to ethos as inauthentic. While arguments don’t generally arouse suspicion, an appeal to one’s credentials can make the audience distrust you if done unskillfully.
- Objectivity: The converse of Aristotle’s statement about the usefulness of ethos in vague matters is that its utility is limited in matters that have objective criteria. For example, ethos is of no use if the truth of the argument one makes can easily be determined by each audience member for themselves.
Ethos is one of three main technical means of persuasion. In the context of rhetoric, it refers to appeals to the persuader’s credibility and comes from the Greek word for “character.” Like other means of persuasion, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
See Also: The 5 Types of Rhetorical Situations
Aristotle. (1926). Rhetoric. In Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22, translated by J. H. Freese. Harvard University Press. (Original work published ca. 367-322 B.C.E.)
Rapp, C. (2022). Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/