11 Ethos Makes the World Go Round
Keywords: Culture, Expertise, Values, Identity
Imagine being a student in a lecture for a Communication university class, and you are randomly assigned a partner, who happens to not be a Communication student, for a group project. As a Communication major myself, I have encountered this scenario a hand-full of times. In these instances, it would be difficult to let your partner take the reins on this assignment. Instead, a Communication student would be inclined to trust their own expertise and apply it to the completion of the project. Because this theoretical partner does not possess the credibility of a Communication major, placing your trust in this person to produce high quality work would be a difficult task. One of Aristotle’s three forms of proof addresses this concept of ethos. Ethos establishes an important concept of rhetoric; how or why should an audience be persuaded to alter their point of views or beliefs? Furthermore, ethos guides peoples’ decision whether or not to trust someone. Without ethos, a speaker’s credibility and expertise are nonexistent, causing the audience to choose to not listen or ignore their argument.
I selected the term ethos because it is an integral facet of all rhetorical situations while simultaneously guiding the academic and professional world. People attend universities to become experts on a topic, and thus obtain the credibility to speak on the matter while attempting to teach others what they know to be true. As a Communication major at a prestigious university, I am authorized to write about the importance of ethos because I have conducted extensive research on the implications of the term, in addition to learning about it in this course. Aristotle’s theories on rhetoric and persuasion have been mentioned in almost every class I have taken since I began high school in 2014. The three forms of proof, in particular, are practically ingrained into my brain, with the help of taking classes at Wake Forest such as Persuasion, Environmental Communication, Empirical Research in Communication, Sports Communication, Writing for Public Relations, and many more. For these reasons, I am certain I am a credible vessel into understanding ethos and what role it plays in rhetoric.
Without ethos, there would be no such thing as effective persuasion. The credibility behind an argument lies within the moral character, virtues, and experience of the speaker. Similarly, an audience’s receptibility of the argument at hand is influenced, in part, by their own moral standards and how they may or may not align with the speaker. The reality of individual beliefs and values is easy to understand, however, the more complicated question is: why are they a pivotal factor in our everyday lives and conversations? Humans look to authority figures to grant them guidance or be a role-model figure, and these leaders and experts were able to get to this point in their career through harnessing ethos. With this in mind, it is justified to say that ethos creates a sort of credibility and expertise caste system in our society. There are those at the top, such as government officials, doctors, or other career professionals, that do not need further explanation into their credibility to propose an argument because they are at the pinnacle stage in the ethos pyramid. In short, while it may be hard to trust others sometimes in our chaotic world, ethos provides the necessary credibility to ensure that you are in good hands.
The most integral contribution that ethos makes from a rhetorical lens is obtaining ethicality in all forms of a rhetorical situation. Humans are easily swayed and persuaded creatures, which is why it is necessary to ensure that arguments made by a speaker are ethical as they can be an influential factor in establishing beliefs and values. Ethicality of an argument can be rooted in ethos, as the principal beliefs or ideals of a culture can be the basis of what is morally correct to persuade or consume. Ethos explains how different cultures place certain values and ideals above others, meaning those who communicate those traits are more respected and could have a convincing effect on an audience that shares the same characteristics. Considering this, a culture that respects academic excellence will take into account a speaker’s professional expertise before deciding to listen to their argument. Furthermore, the effect of ethos on an audience can explain why people are inspired by others to do good for their community. Just like how humans can be persuaded by others to believe something, they can also be guided to perform selfless acts through the power of ethos. A commendable person will have a great amount of ethos, which can allow them to be a role model in their society, guiding others to want to mirror their actions. For example, a charitable person can persuade another to participate in a philanthropic act because the speaker can attest the positive effects of the act. I will dive deeper into these two ideas in the next section.
The first aspect of ethos that I am going to explore is how this rhetorical term both creates and contributes to our modern idea of what it means to be ethical and how a speaker can establish respect and rapport from an audience. Hyde’s scholarly article titled Ethos and Rhetoric nails down the term’s definition and why it is such an integral part of the rhetorical landscape by stating, “the ancient Greek philosopher and rhetorician Isocrates said, ‘that works carry greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that the argument which is made by a man’s life has more weight than that which is furnished words”, and Hyde continues to say, “ethos is both a legitimate source for and a praiseworthy effect of the ethical practice of the orator’s art” (Hyde, 200). In other words, Isocrates is arguing that ethos essentially makes the world go round, credible and ethical words and statements are influential if they are spoken by someone with a high level of ethos. In America for example, a doctor who possesses a great amount of ethos would be a much more trustworthy person to listen to for medical advice than someone who does not. Patients would never listen to a person in the medical profession if it were not for the ethical proof that they possess the credibility and expertise to speak on the topic.
Ethos and community selflessness go hand in hand. Ethos defines what a society values and respects, which in most cases is the representation of togetherness and the shared belief that everybody should do good for the benefit of others. In his writings, Cicero points out that an ethos-based argument should take advantage of virtues associated with a “decent human being”. Without shared community values that are present in ethos, societies would not be able to thrive, humans would be thoughtless and selfish beings that have no respect for others or the greater good. Less fortunate populations within a community depend on others who demonstrate ethos to be charitable and take others into consideration when making decisions. Most of us strive to be “decent human beings” in our everyday lives. However, how can we apply these positive attributes associated with an ethically credible person to everyday occurrences, rather than strictly academic or professional settings? By presenting yourself as a trustworthy and credible human being, you can make progress towards grasping the effectiveness of ethos.
In our ever changing and developing modern world, the importance and necessary nature of ethos is often overlooked by the greater population. Recent societal phenomena, particularly in politics, demonstrate that expertise and credibility in a position or a subject is not necessary to obtain an audience’s attention and potentially influence their beliefs. This notion often occurs in the political sphere, where candidates and political figures do not have reputable civil service backgrounds, yet still are successful in their career. For example, former President Donald Trump has not held any sort of political position before being elected to the highest and most influential role in the United States Government. The reason for this phenomenon in large part because of his diction and ability to persuade an audience through logos and pathos. This goes directly against Aristotle’s theory that a speaker’s ethos is directly correlated to an audience’s acceptance of an argument. However, this is a special case. Trump demonstrated ethos in his campaign by finding common ground with his supporters, evoking the values and beliefs they hold dearly in his rhetorical speeches. Some of the principals he highlighted throughout his campaigns include unemployment and the economy, both of which resonated with his followers.
In all situations, academic, professional, social, etc, ethos is a governing factor in an audience’s potential ability to be influenced, even if it is not the traditional idea of expertise.
Everyone uses rhetoric each day of their lives, they might just not notice it or understand the components that drive communications. Without ethos, persuaders would have no way to appeal to an audience. Speakers need credibility and expertise to back up their statements. This goes back to the element of trust, people are able to increase their knowledge base and progress their beliefs because they placed their trust in someone to teach them how to do so.
Indeed, there are some instances where a speaker’s ethos does not directly correlate with their ability to influence an audience. However, it is important to ask, are these genuine representations of effective persuasion? If credibility and expertise is not established, is an audience truly learning and benefitting from a speaker’s argument? I believe the answer is no.
To reiterate, ethos is a necessary facet of persuasion and rhetoric that guides knowledge and communication. Trust makes the world go round. Without it, humanity would suffer and society would not progress.
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Hyde, M. J. (2014). Ethos and rhetoric. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. doi:10.1002/9781405186407.wbiece043
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