What Is Ethos? | Definition, Meaning & Examples

Ethos is a persuasive technique in which individuals rely on their credibility or character to sway others. When someone comes across as trustworthy, we are receptive to their message. Due to this, speakers and writers strive to impress upon us that they have authority on the subject matter and sincerity and, therefore, are worth listening to.

A politician is speaking to an audience of blue-collar workers and emphasizes his experience working a factory job. He establishes common ground with the workers and showcases that he understands their challenges and concerns.

You may come across ethos in various contexts where persuasion and argumentation are involved, including politics, advertising, and legal proceedings.

Ethos definition

Ethos in its broadest sense is the moral character, disposition, or fundamental values of a person, group, or organization. For example, the ethos of a company describes its business culture and values, like treating employees fairly and respectfully. “Ethos” shares the same linguistic root as “ethics,” a brand of philosophy concerned with what is morally right and wrong.

In rhetoric, ethos (or ethical appeal) is a mode of persuasion and refers to the speaker’s or writer’s credibility, authority, or good character. It is how well they convince the audience that they are qualified to speak on the subject. For example, when a journalist writing about the stock market talks about their years working for an investment bank, that is an appeal to ethos: they are signaling their credibility to readers.

Ethos, pathos, logos

Ethos, together with pathos and logos, are the three basic modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals according to the philosopher Aristotle. Good arguments should balance all three appeals for a multi-layered effect. More specifically:

  • Ethos, or ethical appeal is a means of convincing an audience of the good character and credibility of the writer or presenter. By demonstrating their integrity, experience, and knowledge, the audience is more likely to trust them and accept their viewpoint.
  • Pathos, or pathetic appeal, is a means of evoking specific feelings in an audience, such as anger, sadness, or joy. The goal of the writer or speaker is to establish an emotional connection with the audience and make them more receptive to their message.
  • Logos, or appeal to logic, is a means of engaging an audience’s sense of logic and rationality. Factual evidence, statistics, and well-structured arguments constitute appeals to logic.

In short, ethos is about the speaker or writer, pathos is about the audience, and logos is about the message or text itself.

Keep in mind that you do not have to use all three appeals in every argument. The context of communication and the topic at hand will determine what is the best strategy. However, when in doubt, it is best to use a balanced approach.

Additionally, overreliance on one of the appeals at the expense of the others can weaken the effectiveness of the message and drive audiences away. For example, excessive use of ethos without logical reasoning or objective evidence can be perceived as manipulative or insincere. The ad hominem fallacy and the appeal to authority fallacy are examples of such tactics.

Ethos examples

The function of ethos in advertisements is to emphasize credibility and persuade consumers to trust the brand, product, or message.

Ethos examples in advertising
Ethical appeals in advertising include celebrity endorsements, testimonials from experts (or actors dressed as experts), and industry awards and certifications. On-screen, this could translate as:

  • A luxury watch commercial featuring an internationally acclaimed actress endorsing the brand.
  • A cough syrup advertisement in which a person clad in a white lab coat and stethoscope assures viewers of the syrup’s effectiveness in soothing coughs and relieving throat irritation.
  • A gourmet coffee commercial displaying the brand’s certifications and awards, emphasizing the brand’s reputation as a company known for its ethical sourcing and fair trade practices.

Ethos is an important aspect of persuasion in the courtroom, especially since lawyers are viewed with distrust by default.

Ethos example in the courtroom To build and maintain ethos, lawyers need to demonstrate their trustworthiness, integrity, and authority to the jurors. Examples of ethos in the courtroom include:

  • A lawyer who presents a well-researched and well-organized case.
  • A lawyer who has a reputation for being transparent in all aspects of legal proceedings, such as disclosing relevant information, presenting truthful arguments, and avoiding misleading statements.
  • A lawyer who demonstrates professionalism, respect, and integrity in interactions with the court, witnesses, and jurors.

How to identify ethos

To identify whether a writer or speaker tries to show ethos, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are they using reliable sources? In an academic article, for example, we expect to see authoritative, credible sources like peer-reviewed journals, reputable publications, or government reports.
  • Do they examine the subject fairly? In other words, do they consider any counterarguments and examine any common ground between these and their viewpoint before finally refuting them?
  • Do they present any credentials? Here, we expect speakers and writers to demonstrate that they have relevant academic or professional qualifications to speak on the subject matter. For example, a physics instructor might emphasize their PhD in physics to establish credibility. Alternatively, they may introduce their personal experience with an issue.
  • Do they treat others with respect? Showing respect toward their audience and anyone whose opinion is different from their own attests to the speaker’s or writer’s character.
  • Are they using symbolic authority? References to symbols representing authority can lend the speaker credibility. For example, when a candidate gives a speech in front of the national flag or an important national monument, they are associating themselves with the symbol, “borrowing” the authority it represents.

Frequently asked questions about ethos

What are logos, pathos, and ethos?

Logos, pathos, and ethos are the three modes of persuasion, or ways to persuade people. More specifically:

  • Logos appeals to the audience’s reason. It involves presenting logical arguments, statistics, and facts.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It involves influencing the audience’s emotions through storytelling or evocative language so that they are more likely to accept the speaker’s viewpoint.
  • Ethos appeals to the speaker’s or writer’s credibility. It involves establishing the speaker’s or writer’s authority, trustworthiness, and moral character, making the audience trust them.
What is an example of ethos?

An example of ethos is the “plain folk” technique used in advertising and political campaigns. Politicians, for instance, may try to present themselves as average, ordinary people who love to eat fast food or do household chores. This is to persuade their audience that they can empathize with their concerns.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou, MSc

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.