How to Use Ethos to Judge an Argument

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thank You for Arguing" by Jay Heinrichs. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is ethos in the context of persuasion? How do you use ethos to evaluate a persuasive argument?

Ethos is used to gain credibility and trust in a persuasive argument. However, it can be used for more than just writing a persuasive essay—you can use ethos to judge the arguments of others. The three things you need to look out for are the virtue, level of interest, and practical wisdom of the speaker.

Here’s how to use ethos to judge an argument.

Use Ethos to Judge Others’ Arguments

Your knowledge of ethos can help you determine whether you should listen to someone. When listening to a persuader, Jay Heinrichs, the author of Thank You for Arguing, suggests you determine their trustworthiness by examining their virtue, disinterest, and practical wisdom. Here’s how to use ethos to evaluate an argument:

1. Examine Their Virtue: Do They Speak In Extremes?

According to Aristotle, someone of virtuous character focuses on choices that align with the opinions of their average audience member. Essentially, a virtuous persuader will offer solutions that appeal to the widest possible range of their audience. (Shortform note: As we’ll see later in this guide, the definition of “virtuous” has changed drastically over time, and not for the better.)

Heinrich notes two ways to listen for virtuous moderation.

1) See If They Offer a Middle-of-the-Road Solution

Looking for a middle-of-the-road solution works best in situations where you have a clear, numerical range such as a budget—the “middle” is easy to see. 

For example, a virtuous salesperson will ask you for your spending range and help you find a solution that falls around the middle of your range. In contrast, an unvirtuous salesperson won’t ask you for a range at all, or will try to shift your range to an extreme well above the amount you were planning to spend.

(Shortform note: You’ll likely more often see unvirtuous salespeople—in negotiations, the concept of virtuous moderation is referred to as “splitting the difference.” According to Chris Voss (Never Split the Difference), splitting the difference means you’ve lost the negotiation or argument, so it’s not a popular tactic.)

2) Listen to How They Describe the Average 

To determine virtuousness when discussing relatively ambiguous concepts, listen for extremist labeling. Heinrichs describes the process of listening for extremist labeling:

  1. Figure out what the extreme ends of the concept’s spectrum would be—this helps give you a rough idea of what a moderate viewpoint might look like.
  2. Ask your persuaders for their opinions on the concept. Anyone who presents an objectively extreme point of view isn’t trustworthy and can be ignored. Most responses, however, will fall within the “ideal” range you identified—but will contradict one another.
  3. Here, you’re safe choosing any of these contradicting opinions, since you’ve already weeded out the extreme opinions. However, to determine the most trustworthy opinion, test your persuaders’ virtue further by asking for their opinion on mainstream views. 
  4. If they label mainstream views with extreme terms such as “insane,” “useless,” “cruel,” and so on, their advice isn’t trustworthy. Someone who describes the average as extreme is usually an extremist herself.  

(Shortform note: What Heinrichs doesn’t mention about this process is how difficult it may be in practice. It seems rational and obvious to weed out extreme opinions and choose a safer moderate option. However, it’s human nature to do the opposite: Your brain is wired to ignore subtle or ordinary information and focus sharply on extreme or surprising information. While you may have the intent to ignore extreme opinions in favor of average solutions, you’ll likely have to remind yourself that just because an opinion is interesting, loud, or attractive doesn’t mean that it deserves your attention.) 

2. Examine Their Disinterest: What’s In It for Them?

To determine your persuader’s disinterest, or impartiality, consider whether the choice she offers meets your needs or hers. If there’s a clear disconnect between your needs and the choice, Heinrichs says you can be sure that your persuader is driven by self-interest. On the other hand, if the choice seems to align with your needs, you can trust that your persuader’s goal is an outcome that’s advantageous for all.

(Shortform note: Be careful in looking out for whose needs your persuader is meeting—people who are especially skilled in manipulation or negotiation know how to make you believe your needs are being met. Ask yourself honestly what the outcome of their proposed choice is—focus on the reality, not the promise, of the outcome. Trust your judgment: If the reality doesn’t match the promise and doesn’t meet your expressed need, walk away.)

3. Examine Their Practical Wisdom: Do They Know the Right Thing to Do? 

Heinrichs says that the third sign of a trustworthy persuader is showing that their practical wisdom is useful to your particular situation. He outlines several clues to look for. 

Clue 1: Comparable Experience

Someone with practical wisdom demonstrates that she has personal experience finding solutions to problems comparable to yours. For example, if you’re looking for a contractor for renovations in your 1800s home, you’re most likely to choose the one who says, “This reminds me of an 1840 Victorian I worked on last year.”

(Shortform note: Many people think that because someone is generally wise, they’re trustworthy in all situations. Research shows that this isn’t the case—wisdom varies greatly depending on the situation you’re in. Seeking out someone with experience ensures that you’ll be getting wisdom tailored to your specific situation.) 

Clue 2: “That Depends On…”

Someone with practical wisdom understands that most situations don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, so they’re careful to understand a situation fully before suggesting solutions. Heinrichs warns that if your persuader gives advice or solutions without asking for clarification on your situation, their advice isn’t trustworthy. For example, if you ask potential dog trainers, “How much exercise should my dog be getting?” a trainer with practical wisdom will take time to understand your situation rather than responding generically: “That depends on various factors. How old is your dog? What breed?”

(Shortform note: This clue is a trickle-down representation of Socrates’s idea that wisdom lies in knowing that you don’t know everything. Someone who is wise and trustworthy acknowledges that they need more information, while someone who is “smart” but untrustworthy feels that they already have all the necessary information.)

How to Use Ethos to Judge an Argument

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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