Do you have a strong set of ethics or a strict moral code? At some point in your life, it's likely you'll come across a piece of writing or a speech that will appeal to your ethical perspective. When that happens, you'll know the writer or speaker has employed the rhetorical device of ethos.
They'll appeal to your sense of right and wrong, and elicit either a favorable or unfavorable response from you. Let's talk a little bit more about this mode of persuasion, then dive into several examples of ethos in action.
The great philosopher Aristotle divided the act of persuasion into three realms: ethos, logos, and pathos. When attempting to persuade someone, either in written or oral form, you might want to appeal to their ethics (ethos), logic (logos), or emotion (pathos). Any approach may prove successful, but that depends on your intent and audience.
Although Aristotle's preferred method of persuasion was logos (logic), he wasn't completely opposed to ethos (ethics). He was, however, averse to pathos (emotion). He said, "The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts."
To call someone's moral code into question is tricky terrain. You never want to launch into an ad hominem attack and pretend to know the inner workings of someone else's mind. Perhaps that's why Aristotle was a fan of cold, hard, scholarly facts.
Let's move from the intangible (ethics and emotions) to the tangible. We'll take things to a more concrete level and enjoy some examples of ethos, starting with the written word.
I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system-that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.
Scout's father, Atticus, is using ethos so blatantly, he might as well say, "Hey, jurors, find your ethics and make the right decision." He's calling each juror out on the carpet, reminding them that no one man is better than any other man in the courtroom, or in society as a whole. This is an important ideal that Atticus preached in both his personal and private life.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.
John Steinbeck loved to write in the first person. He often became the narrator of this own novels. In East of Eden, he's appealing to people's sense of ethics regarding freedom. He's standing firm in his resolve to fight against any ideal that limits the individual and is clearly making the case for others to follow.
It's hard to have a leading character if the entire audience isn't captivated by him or her. As such, the leading man or woman must follow a strict code of ethics. Part of the suspense usually comes into play when those ethics are called into question in a pivotal moment. What will they choose? Let's take a look at two examples of ethos in movies.
The 2018 film Black Panther is the highest grossing superhero movie of all time in the United States. Ironically, it was the Black Panther's enemy, Erik Kilmonger, who put the movie's sense of ethos into action.
He couldn't help but wonder why the country of Wakanda wasn't utilizing its vast resources to help the rest of the world. He makes the case that Wakanda has a moral obligation to do so, even if his means aren't exactly ethically sound (which is where things get interesting).
Turns out Helen Mirren can play the Queen of England and a British army colonel. In Eye in the Sky, Mirren's character orders a drone strike to take out a group of terrorists in Kenya. However, moral judgments come into play when a young girl enters the kill zone. Is one girl's life worth the payoff that comes with the extinction of a terrorist cell?
Of course, the implications extend beyond an innocent, young girl and a band of terrorists. The moral dilemma surrounding modern warfare, particularly drone strikes, is the central theme of the film. Mirren's character may take out the target, but it'll come with a steep price.
Plenty of characters in the film lean on their sense of ethos to make their case for and against the drone strike.
It's no secret a politician must be a master persuader. They have to earn the confidence of legions of people across a city or town, or even across a nation. One of the best ways to do that is to align their ethical code with the people they're trying to elicit votes from. Let's take a look at two powerful orators who apply ethos to their speeches.
"I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression.
"I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future."
In his speech in 2008, Barack Obama couldn't be any more transparent in his use of ethos. He said, "I will restore our moral standing" as a free, yet powerful, nation. Most people want to be on the "right side of history" and fight a noble war, if a war must be fought at all. And that's precisely what Obama tries to hone in on in this speech.
"I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."
In Ronald Reagan's farewell address to the nation in 1989, he made an appeal using ethos. It's one thing to make a statement that knocks on morality's door. It's another thing to make a sound argument, relying heavily upon the people's moral code.
Few things in life are more important than freedom. It's the foundation upon which America was built. Before he left the Oval Office, Reagan made one final appeal. He encouraged government leaders not to overstep their bounds because, if they did, it would be detrimental to the people's right to liberty.
Sure you do. We all have some sort of code we live by. That's why it's a great rhetorical device. Whenever writers can reach through the pages and tug at the audience's sense of right and wrong, they stand a chance of securing a faithful following.
Interested to see how else you can hook readers into your work? Scan through these examples of rhetorical devices. Maybe you'll pair a little hyperbole with your ethos and see how the audience responds!