Arguments Based on Character: Ethos

Audiences pay attention to ethos. Before we listen to others, we usually must respect their authority, understand and agree with their motives, see their integrity, and at least understand what they truly stand for.

Can we pay attention to them? Can we trust them? If you don't establish this first, the actual argument itself will be discounted.

Be careful not to commit the ad hominem fallacy: you consider the validity of a premise based solely on a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.

Person 1 makes claim X
There is something objectionable about Person 1
Therefore claim X is false.

Person 2 makes claim X
There is something favorable about Person 2
Therefore claim X is true.

In both cases, there is no reasoning involved, but merely stereotype or emotional response.

An ethical appeal requires knowledge of your audience, and how you can demonstrate your ethos to them.

How does a punk rock band show their ethos?
How about celebrities who lecture on global warming?

Writers and speakers create ethos in at least two ways:

1) they shape themselves when they make an argument:

2) They also bring their previous lives, work, and reputations to the argument.


Understanding how Arguments Based on Character Work

Life is complex and short--we can't weigh EVERY claim or trace EVERY fragment of evidence.

Thus, we depend on other people to do this for us. These people are experts, people whose judgments and opinions we believe or feel are accurate and valid.

Who is an expert on global warming? Why?
Who is an expert on tax laws? Why?
Who is an expert on football? Why?

Appeals/arguments about character depend on an audience deciding the following:

Take the case of Michael Moore, the film maker. He made a film called Sicko, which compares the for-profit, non-universal U.S. system with the non-profit universal health care systems of Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Cuba. (See this synopsis on Wikipedia for a quick overview of the film.)

1) Does Moore have the authority to speak on this issue?
2) Is he credible or trustworthy on this issue?
3) Does he have good motives for addressing this subject?
4) Does your current opinion about Moore, the US medical system, or corporations cause you to commit the ad hominem fallacy here?

What kind of appeal is Moore using in this section of the film?

Returning to the United States, interviews disclose that 9/11 rescue workers who volunteered after the September 11, 2001 attacks were denied government funds to care for physical and psychological maladies they subsequently developed, including respiratory disease and PTSD. Unable to receive and afford medical care in the U.S., the 9/11 rescue workers, as well as all of Moore's friends in the film needing medical attention, appear to sail from Miami to Cuba on three speedboats in order to obtain free medical care provided for the enemy combatants detained at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detainment camp. The group arrives at the entrance channel to "Gitmo" and Moore uses a megaphone to request access, pleading for the 9/11 victims to receive treatment that is on par with the medical attention the "evildoers" are receiving. The attempt ceases when a siren is blown from the base, and the group moves on to Havana, where they purchase inexpensive medicine and receive free medical treatment.[9] Providing only their names and birth dates, the volunteers are hospitalized and receive medical attention. Before they leave, the 9/11 rescue workers are honored by a local Havana fire station.

Free health care in Cuba, but not the USA? What a deal! Viva el Castro, right? Moore is apparently arguing that even Cubans get better health care than 9/11 rescue workers. USA sucks, right?

Well, maybe...compare that to this article arguing that Moore does not show the reality of health care in Cuba.

1) Does Moore or the Cuban authors have the authority to speak on this issue?
2) Is he credible or trustworthy on this issue?
3) Does he have good motives for addressing this subject?
4) Does your current opinion about Moore, the US medical system, or corporations cause you to commit the ad hominem fallacy here?
5) Does his film deserve an Academy Aware nomination for best documentary?


Claiming Authority

When you read an argument, especially one with an aggressive claim (buying a car or a house, choosing a college, discussing a person you are thinking of marrying, etc.) you are right to wonder about the writer's authority:

Your job as a writer includes anticipating and preparing for these very questions.

How can you establish your authority?

Job titles, educational achievements, published works...all these, in time, establish you as an authority--IF they are truly earned, given by critical audiences, not self-titled or self-published.

Darcy Burner ran for Congress in Washington state in 2006. She claimed that she was a "former Microsoft executive," although later research showed she was not an exective at all, but a "Group Program Manager," which is not an executive position, as the term is used. Why did Burner make this claim?

Some claim that Barak Obama was a Constitutional Law Professor at the Univ. of Chicago, while others (and records show) that he was not an actual Professor (a title with specific meanings, not merely an honorific). Why would some make this claim that he was, while others dispute this claim?

Ward Churchill, a former Professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado (an actual full Professor, with pay and responsibilities as contracted) claimed Native American ancestry:

In 2003, Churchill stated, "I am myself of Muscogee and Creek descent on my father's side, Cherokee on my mother's, and am an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.In 1992, Churchill wrote elsewhere that he is one-eighth Creek and one-sixteenth Cherokee.In 1993, Churchill told the Colorado Daily that, "he was one-sixteenth Creek and Cherokee." Churchill told the Denver Post in February 2005 that he is three-sixteenths Cherokee.

However, the Native Americans apparently do not claim him:

In a statement dated May 9, 2005, and posted on its website, the United Keetoowah Band initially said, "The United Keetoowah Band would like to make it clear that Mr. Churchill IS NOT a member of the Keetoowah Band and was only given an honorary 'associate membership' in the early 1990s because he could not prove any Cherokee ancestry." The tribe said that all of Churchill's "past, present and future claims or assertions of Keetoowah 'enrollment,' written or spoken, including but not limited to; biographies, curriculum vitae, lectures, applications for employment, or any other reference not listed herein, are deemed fraudulent by the United Keetoowah Band."[23]

In an abrupt change of tone two days later, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians removed its critical statement regarding Churchill and replaced it with one that acknowledged his "alleged ancestry" of being Cherokee. "Because Mr. Churchill had genealogical information regarding his alleged ancestry, and his willingness to assist the UKB in promoting the tribe and its causes, he was awarded an 'Associate Membership' as an honor," the tribe's website now said. "However, Mr. Churchill may possess eligibility status for Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, since he claims 1/16 Cherokee." The tribe's spokesperson, Lisa Stopp, stated the tribe enrolls only members with certified one-quarter American Indian blood. The website statement further clarified that Churchill "was not eligible for tribal membership due to the fact that he does not possess a 'Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB)", and the associate membership did not entitle an individual to voting rights or enrollment in the tribe. Churchill has never asked for CDIB certification, and finds the idea of being "vetted" by the US government offensive.

The tribe pointed out that he was never an "actual" tribe member, but rather an honorary tribe member, which merely recognizes service to a tribe, not blood ancestry. Churchill's own family history actually shows no evidence of Indian ancestry, as reporter by the Rocky Mountain News..

Yet Churchill was able to use his "authority" as an educated, outspoken, and radical (anti-government, anti-statusquo) "Indian" for his personal advantage:

Documents in Churchill's university personnel file show that he was granted tenure in a "special opportunity position."[16] Such positions were later described as a program designed to help "recruit and hire a more diverse faculty."[30] In 1994, then CU-Boulder Chancellor James Corbridge refused to take action on allegations that Churchill was fraudulently claiming to be an Indian, saying "it has always been university policy that a person's race or ethnicity is self-proving."

When your readers are skeptical about your claims, you are under a lot more pressure to establish your credentials. Everybody can have an opinion on a topic, but some are clearly based on better evidence and reasoning than others.

If you have no established authority, then it helps if you know your subject when you make a claim.

How can you show you know your subject in your writing?

How can you tell who is an actual authority about a topic?


Establishing Credibility

Authority= how much command you have over a subject

Credibility = honesty and respect for an audience.

How to establish credibility with those who don't know you?

Make reasonable claims (rather than exaggerated or outlandish claims) and back them up with evidence and documentation.

1) Be sure that your writing visually conveys your message as effectively as possible.

Follow format and style guidelines for your discipline (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.)
Show audiences that you care to present your best self on paper.

2) Establish credibilty by connecting your own beliefs and values to core principles that are well established and widely respected (beware of the extremes).

If you think your audience is going to think your position is extreme, try to establish that it is not

3) Use language that shows respect for readers. Don't talk down to them (which is insulting) or up to them (which is pretentious butt-kissing)

4) Cite trustworthy sources and acknowledge them properly--show that you have done the background research.

5) Admit your limitations--things you don't know, recognized weaknesses in your position, exceptions, and so on.

6) Show that you have scrutinized your own position and thus can be trusted when you argue for its merits.


Coming Clean about Motives

People are always trying to sell us things--products, ideas, etc.

It is only natural to question their motives:

Whose interests are they serving?
How will they profit from this proposal?

Critical audiences will ask the same questions of you.

It is often to your benefit to discuss conflicts of interest (when an idea might be to your advantage.)

What if I told you that carbon credits would help save the earth from global warming, then you found out that I sold carbon credits for profit?

Let audiences know your loyalties and interests, so your biases are up front, rather than hidden as you pretend to be dis-interested. This is a risk, but it more often works in your favor than not.


Consider the ethos of the following public figures. Then describe one or two public arguments, campaigns, or products that might benefit from their endorsements, as well as some that might not.

Oprah Winfrey (TV celebrity)
Al Sharpton ('civil rights' activist and politician)
Nancy Pelosi (Democratic party politician from California and Majority Leader for the House of Representatives, and 2nd in line for the Presidency, if anything happens to Obama!)
Dan Rather
Jay Leno
Lady Gaga
Homer Simpson