Ethos

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Ethos (ἦθος) (plurals: ethe, ethea) is a Greek word originally meaning 'the place of living' that can be translated into English in different ways. Some possibilities are 'starting point', 'to appear', 'disposition' and from there, 'character'. From the same Greek root originates the word ethikos (ἠθικός), meaning 'theory of living', and from there, the modern English word 'ethics' is derived.

In rhetoric, ethos is one of the three modes of persuasion (other principles being logos and pathos) discussed by Aristotle in 'Rhetoric' as a component of argument. At first speakers must establish ethos. On the one hand, this can mean merely "moral competence", but Aristotle broadens this word to encompass expertise and knowledge. He expressedly remarks that ethos should be achieved only by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. This position is often disputed and other writers on rhetoric state that ethos is connected to the overall moral character and history of the speaker. (cf Isocrates).

When determining whether a given argument is useful, one must question the ethos the speaker has established. Violations of ethos can entail some of the following:

  • The speaker has a direct interest in the outcome of the debate (e.g. a person pleading innocence of a crime);
  • The speaker has a vested interest or ulterior motive in the outcome of the debate;
  • The speaker has no expertise (e.g. a lawyer giving a speech on space flight carries less gravity than an astronaut giving the same speech).

It should be noted that dismissing an argument based on any of the above violations of ethos is a formal fallacy, rendering the dismissal argument invalid.

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Ethos

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