Ethos definition: Ethos is a rhetorical device that includes any content in an argument that is meant to appeal to ethics.
What is Ethos? Ethos as a Literary Term
What does ethos mean? Ethos is one of the three Aristotelian appeals. Ethos refers to any element of an argument that is meant to appeal to an audience’s ethics or ethical responsibilities.
A writer utilizes the three appeals in order to convince his audience of his argument. The other two appeals are pathos (emotion) and logos (logic).
Appeals to ethos are those that involve or influence the ethical reasons an audience should believe an argument.
Ethos often shows up in an argument in the statements about the speaker’s intentions (why what he is saying is a “good” argument) or about the speaker’s credibility (why he is an authority on this subject). However, any ethical statement could be an appeal to ethos.
Ethos Examples in Writing
Examples of ethos in an argument in support of education reform that appeal to ethos might include:
- I have studied this topic for the past ten years.
- This is a national problem, one every citizen and every parent should find concerning.
The first example is reference to the speaker’s credibility; the second example is an appeal to the audience’s sense of ethical responsibility.
Here is an example from The New York Times,
- The idea of building a large work force of full-time employees, outside of core disciplines like engineering, is not part of the ethos of most companies in today’s tech industry, observers who have studied the industry say.
In this example, the author is contrasting the company with that of its competitors. This company has a different set of ethos, a different set of ethics and priorities. This company, unlike others in the industry, value full-time employees outside of engineers. It is an attempt to set this company on an ethical high ground above its peers.
Ethos vs. Pathos vs. Logos
Ethos, pathos, and logos are the three Aristotelian appeals. Ethos is an appeal to ethics, pathos is an appeal to emotions, and logos is an appeal to logic.
Each of these is used in an argument in order to convince an audience. The argument may be heavier in one appeal over another; however, a good argument will contain some of all three appeals.
Continuing the education reform argument from above, here are additional examples for demonstration:
- Pathos—appeals to emotion
- How can you look at these failing students and say nothing should be done about our education system?
- No average person would ignore this problem.
- Logos—appeals to logic including facts, statistics, and reason
- Student SAT scores are the lowest they are in 40 years.
- Given these low test scores, we should rally our efforts to reform K-12 education.
The Purpose of Ethos in Writing
Ethos is a vital aspect in an argument. This is one of the primary methods a writer uses to convince his audience of his argument. Most arguments will contain at least some appeals to ethos.
First and foremost, a speaker must convince his audience that he is someone they should believe. He does this through appeals to ethos. The speaker might not directly state his credits, but he should in some way present his authority to the audience. Some speakers have innate authority (like the President) and others have to prove it.
Furthermore, most people want to do the “right” thing. That is where ethos comes into play. Through appeals to ethos, a speaker will convince the audience that agreeing with his argument is “good” and “right.”
Examples of Ethos in Literature
Ethos examples in literature: The opening lines of the United States’ Declaration of Independence presents an appeal to ethos.
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
These lines appeal to ethos especially in the last clause beginning with “a decent respect”. At the time of this document’s conception, it was the “right” thing for mankind to want to separate from the British Kingdom.
This document starts with these lines because the authors intend to convince the British Crown that their separation is a just and ethical obligation.
Summary: What Does Ethos Mean in Literature?
Define ethos in literature: the definition of ethos in literature is an argument based on the ethics or credibility of the person making the argument; an appeal to ethics.
To sum up, ethos is:
- one of the three Aristotelian appeals used in argument
- an appeal to ethics
- evident in an argument in statements of the speaker’s credibility or references to why the argument is “good” or “right”