Ethos literally means "ethics", so it would seem that it would be used to describe appeals to one's ethics, morals, or "right vs wrong". However, it seems that it is also used to describe appeals to authority, or making the speaker seem more trustworthy. I remember learning it as referring to the first, but searching online I found the latter definition in many places. Some sources combine the two as "an appeal to the speaker's ethics" or something similar. It is especially confusing given how straightforward logos and pathos are. What happened? What does ethos really mean?

2 Answers 2


Yes, teachers sometimes instruct students that a persuasive essay can sway its audience via three means: ethos, pathos, and logos. This division ultimately comes from Aristotle's "Rhetoric":

The methodical core of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the theorem that there are three ‘technical’ pisteis, i.e. ‘persuaders’ or ‘means of persuasion’. Persuasion comes about either through the character (êthos) of the speaker, the emotional state (pathos) of the hearer, or the argument (logos) itself. (Christof Rapp, "Aristotle’s Rhetoric", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2022)

"Ethos" is sometimes taught as "appeal to authority" (as you note) or some similar reason to believe the argument. Basically, the person's background (education, prior experience, reputation, etc.) qualifies him or her to speak authoritatively on the subject, so you should trust that person. Actual morals ("right vs wrong") are usually not considered.

I'm not sure about when this was first included in English-language school curriculums, but it has certainly been taught this way in the U.S. for decades.


Ethos, as MarcinManhattan has observed, is one of the three means a speaker and/or writer has at their disposal to persuade an audience to their point of view.

Traditionally, ethos is a product of a speaker's (or writer's) believability. In modern parlance, a speaker with a high degree of ethos is considered highly credible.

What makes a speaker credible? Aristotle postulated that ethos stems from a speaker's intelligence, virtue, and goodwill. Put simply, a speaker with high ethos has the audience believing that he or she knows what they are talking about. Second, a speaker with a high ethos (or "street cred") comes across as a virtuous person, someone who walks the talk, is transparent, and refuses to be hypocritical.

Third, a highly credible speaker seems to the audience to be a person of goodwill who has their best interests in mind. Audiences identify with such a person. A speaker with goodwill refuses to talk down to the audience but strives for clarity, empathy, and genuine concern.

Can these ethical aspects of the persuasion process be faked? Of course they can. That is why rhetoric is connected in so many people's minds today with a bunch of hot air, obfuscation, ill-begotten logic, and outright fallacious thinking. People say "Oh, that's just a bunch of rhetoric," meaning rhetoric is somehow divorced from the truth. It can be, to be sure, but it needn't be.

Ethos and ethics are not the same thing, though they have a similar etymology. Think of ethics as a system of rules or standards by which a person governs their behavior. A highly ethical person is one who hews to both their and their culture's accepted--and lauded--standards of behavior.

Think of ethos as a personification of those standards in a speaker or writer. A speaker can have a string of advanced degrees, can be a silver-tongued orator, and can hold an audience in thrall. As soon as an audience discovers a chink in the orator's armor, however, an ascendant star can fall in a moment and be disqualified from being believed and followed.

Check out the online article by Richard Nordquist, who is professor emeritus of rhetoric and English at Georgia Southern University.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.