10 An Expansive Ethos
My chapter is dedicated to my parents. My mother and father have always placed meaningful emphasis on building and upholding good character in all respects of life. In my own experience, I have found it vital to the activation of Ethos to have personal exemplars to inspire and teach you. My parents have served as just that for me; they let good character drive their behavior and interactions, striving to put an ethical foot forward in every situation. I am so grateful to have such extraordinary leaders in my life and would like to dedicate this chapter on Ethos to the two individuals who inspired it.
Keywords: Character, Virtue, Ethics, Identification, Credibility
Is Ethos solely relevant to the public political sphere, or does it also hold value and credibility in interpersonal characterization and social definition? Whether humans are conscious of it or not, their daily decisions, actions, and interactions are guided by a form of proof known as Ethos. Derived from the Greek word for custom or habit, Ethos first arose as a crucial component of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. The famous philosopher roughly views Ethos as “persuasion through character, as to make a speaker worthy of credence” (“Rhetoric, Aristotle’s Ethics.”). Along with Logos and Pathos, the three rhetorical techniques form the perfect argument: establishing a speaker’s reason, ethical credibility, and emotional appeal. This historical and philosophical foundation certainly holds truth and value, but the concept of Ethos also extends beyond a solely persuasive context. It drives social definition and moralization, inherently intertwined with ethics, virtue, and character. I am lucky to have exemplars of good character in my life, both at home and at Wake Forest, who instilled in me the value of actively pursuing and practicing virtue. Ultimately, good character provides meaningful purpose, positively impacts relationships, and simply makes the world a better place. With these important ideas in mind, I argue that the Aristotelian term impacts broader aspects of an individual’s life and sustains value not limited to argumentation. Taken collectively, Ethos is a pervasive concept that consistently helps individuals define themselves as persons of character and identify with different social groups, institutions, and beliefs.
To begin, Ethos is simply an ethical appeal. It calls upon an individual’s ability to build a moral reputation of trust, respect, and good character that informs audience perception. This historic Ethos serves to either reinforce or weaken argument validity in the context of discourse. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” (1963) speech uses this rhetorical proof to establish credibility of character and inspire his audience. He references racially unjust moments in American history and calls his listeners to “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” (King). King poetically proposes a moral obligation to address the racial injustices in America, demonstrating his good character and resultantly strengthening his argument validity. Ethos is crucial to such moments of discourse, and stems from an individual’s ability to habituate virtue in vast respects of life and define themselves as persons of character outside the realm of argumentation.
In his paper “Ethos and Habituation in Aristotle” (2012), Jiyuan Yu explains that Ethos is grounded in virtue and virtue constructs an individual’s character (Yu 520). As concluded by my “Character and the Professions” Humanities class, character is the collection of stable, reliable, and enduring dispositions that define how individuals think, feel, and act in morally appropriate ways. Evident in this definition, a person’s character governs all aspects of their life; it does not only surface in persuasive contexts. Yu reiterates Aristotle’s belief that building good character “requires a process of habituation” (Yu 520) of virtue, recalling the Greek root “habit” of the term Ethos. Whether you are presenting an argument, colloquially conversing, forming personal attitudes, or having passing thoughts, you are subconsciously habituating virtues or vices that influence your character. Martin Luther King Jr. embodies virtues of justice, compassion, perseverance, and hope—to name a few—in the way he carries himself, approaches conflict, and speaks. Yes, this does allow for the solidification of argument validity in the eyes of an audience. However, it more importantly constructs a moral navigation system that builds an overarching reputation of trust, respect, and good character.
Building upon this idea, I argue that Ethos helps individuals identify with certain social groups, institutions, and belief systems. As aforementioned, rhetorical Ethos establishes moral credibility that informs outside perspectives. According to the article “Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: Strategies of Persuasion in Social/Environmental Reports” (2012), rhetoric “influences how social actors think, feel, and act” (Higgins et. al.). When individuals or organizations functionalize Ethos as an ethical appeal—written, spoken, illustrated, physically expressed, etc.—it impels others in certain directions. To provide a modern example, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is a cosmetic brand that frequently uses the slogan “beauty for all” in its advertising and marketing techniques. This simple rhetoric conveys the company’s utmost value of inclusivity and attracts consumers with similar values. As a personal example, I chose to attend Wake Forest University because I agreed with the goals of the institution. The impressive reputation Wake Forest established through relationships and public rhetoric led me to joining this community, making friends, declaring a major, and participating in different clubs. The expressive rhetoric that characterizes Fenty Beauty as an inclusive company and Wake Forest as a distinguished university is a functionalization of Ethos that informs individual identification with those groups.
The counter argument inevitably arises that the characterization and social definition that Ethos directs are stagnant and therefore minor effects of the term. Yes, Ethos is about persuasion in the public political sphere, but its value in interpersonal characterization and identification is ever-present and highly influential in people’s daily experiences. Szymon Wróbel writes in his essay “Logos, Ethos, Pathos. Classical Rhetoric Revisited” (2015) that Ethos means an individual is able to—and seeks to—constantly “understand human character and goodness in their various forms” (Wróbel 409). This requires an acute awareness of ethical virtue and how it plays a role in dictating behavior. According to scholars studying the modern context of Ethos, “any adequate ‘map’ or model of Ethos will include a version of self and of its relation to culture and language” (Baumlin et. al.), for it is a constant and pervasive concept. Ethos exists and evolves in rhetorical, cultural, and personal contexts beyond argumentation. In all stages of life—childhood, education, professional career, relationships, etc.—it is this ongoing development of character and identification that persists and progresses in a meaningful way. As noted by Christian Miller in his novel The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2017), it is important to recognize the significant role of Ethos for “good character typically makes the world a better place” (Miller). With this philosophy in mind, Ethos sustains values beyond its persuasive definition and has a ripple effect in communities through individual practice and sharing of good character.
Aristotle created the term Ethos to describe the ethical appeal of his three modes of persuasion. While it is primarily considered in the context of argumentation, Ethos importantly informs individual characterization. It is rooted in the habituation of virtue that guides how people think, converse, and act on a daily basis. It consistently develops a moral reputation that either strengthens or weakens the perceived credibility of an individual, group, or institution. In this way, Ethos directs identification with certain groups based on character. It is important to understand and value such elements of this expansive term, for they give purpose to life’s pursuits and establish positive and moral connectivity in different communities.
Baumlin, James S., and Craig A. Meyer. “Positioning Ethos in/for the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction to Histories of Ethos.” Humanities, vol. 7, no. 3, 3, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Sept. 2018, p. 78. www.mdpi.com, doi:10.3390/h7030078.
Carlo, Rosanne. Transforming Ethos: Place and the Material in Rhetoric and Writing. Utah State University Press, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=6338412.
Higgins, Colin, and Robyn Walker. “Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Strategies of Persuasion in Social/Environmental Reports.” Accounting Forum, vol. 36, no. 3, Routledge, Sept. 2012, pp. 194–208. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1016/j.accfor.2012.02.003.
“‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety. Accessed 3 May 2021.
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Miller, Christian. The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=5108826.
“Rhetoric, Aristotle’s: Ethos.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods, by Mike Allen, SAGE Publications, Inc, 2017. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.4135/9781483381411.n519.
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WRÓBEL, SZYMON. “‘Logos, Ethos, Pathos’. Classical Rhetoric Revisited.” Polish Sociological Review, no. 191, Polskie Towarzystwo Socjologiczne (Polish Sociological Association), 2015, pp. 401–21.
Yu, Jiyuan. “‘Ethos’ and Habituation in Aristotle.” Frontiers of Philosophy in China, vol. 7, no. 4, Brill, 2012, pp. 519–32.