Write On!, 0819 WYBJ, Vol. 42 No. 5. 56
|Michael R. Smith, University of Wyoming College of Law Laramie, Wyoming
|Vol. 42 5 Pg. 56
Traits of Credibility - Part 1: An Introduction to Ethos
"[P]ersuasive discourse depends as much on the advocate's character and credibility (ethos) as it does on the logic of the argument or the emotional content of the case."
Michael R. Smith, University of Wyoming College of Law Laramie, Wyoming
Advocacy experts have long recognized that establishing credibility in the eyes of one's audience is a key aspect of effective persuasive writing. Classical rhetoricians, like Aristotle, called this aspect of persuasion ethos, specifically defining ethos as the process of persuading by establishing credibility as a trustworthy source of information.
Not only do classical rhetoricians value ethos (credibility) as a crucial part of persuasion, but they have even gone so far as to break ethos down into three separate components, namely intelligence, character, and good will. According to classical rhetoric theory, advocates gain the trust of their audience by projecting through their writing that they are intelligent, that they possess sound character, and that they are well disposed toward their adversarial opponent. Stated in the reverse, advocates can undermine their credibility in three ways. First, they can be viewed as untrustworthy by their audience by evincing a lack of intelligence. The idea here is that an audience will distrust the advice or position of an advocate who appears to lack sufficient intelligence to analyze a matter and advise correctly.
Second, advocates can undermine their credibility by evincing questionable character, such as by lying to or misleading their audience. It stands to reason that if the audience believes an advocate lacks solid character, the audience will likely distrust and disregard the advocate's message.
The third way advocates can undermine their credibility is by bring into question their motivation to advise accurately. Classical rhetoricians call this aspect of credibility good will. If an advocate manifests intense ill will toward an opponent in a matter, the advocate's credibility may be suspect, for the advocate may not be basing his or her position on the merits of the topic, but rather may merely be taking a position that adversely effects the target of his or her ill will.
Over 2500 years ago, Aristotle eloquently summarized these three components...
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