Ethos is important in rhetoric, because it helps an audience remain attentive to a speaker and encourages them to trust the speaker. Aristotle wrote that people should be able to trust a rhetorician’s judgment as well as the rhetorician’s basic goodness. In other words, it’s not enough to make yourself seem likeable—you have to appear trustworthy and reliable. Aristotle lists three qualities of ethos: 1) virtue, i.e., sharing the audience’s values, 2) practical wisdom, i.e., knowing the right thing to do, and 3) disinterest, i.e., being unbiased.
Likeable people may be good as persuading others, but not necessarily: it’s probably better for a rhetorician to exhibit competence, virtue, and disinterest than it is for the rhetorician to only seem likeable in the narrowest sense of the word.
Heinrichs begins with virtue, the first of the three qualities of ethos. In rhetorical terms, being virtuous simply means connecting with an audience’s values. People have many different ideas of “virtue,” which means that what seems ethical to a speaker could actually detract from that speaker’s ethos. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, the lawyer Atticus Finch is seen as a virtuous person, until it become clear that his values don’t coincide with those of his racist town. His virtue is great, but his rhetorical virtue, when he speaks to the racist jury, is low. On the other hand, consider Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln opposed slavery, but he was well-known for enjoying “darkie jokes” and even using the n-word. Perhaps Lincoln succeeded as a politician because he adapted his rhetorical virtue to different audiences—a gambit that may seem politically incorrect by 21st century standards, but which also allowed him to fight slavery.
There must be thousand of different definitions of the word “virtue,’ each corresponding to a different moral tradition. However, for the purposes of making a speech, “virtue” simply means fitting in with the culture and values of an audience. With his (perhaps overly simplified) example of Lincoln, Heinrichs suggests that it’s better to compromise on one’s core beliefs in order to get things done than it is to always be consistent and risk getting nothing done. Here, as in the rest of the book, Heinrichs seems more interested in deliberative than demonstrative rhetoric, just as he’s more interested in getting things done than in holding fast to one set of values.
Adapting to an audience’s notions of virtue can be tricky—sometimes, one must persuade two distinct audiences, each with its own values, at once. When Heinrichs published a college alumni magazine, he never received a raise, even though the magazine was making money. He realized that he was presenting himself to his academic colleagues as a pure businessman, instead of as a defender of academic values. Had Heinrichs strengthened his rhetorical virtue and made himself seem more interested in academia, his bosses might have paid him more.
Heinrichs’ personal example emphasizes the point that it’s not enough to be logical, and indeed, sometimes it’s not enough to get good results. People can intuitively sense when other people don’t share their values, and, as Heinrichs’ example shows, they sometimes attach more importance to values than competence.
One of the simplest ways to boost one’s ethical virtue is to brag about “all the good things you have done.” However, getting someone else to brag on one’s behalf is often a better technique. Another technique is the “tactical flaw”—i.e., admitting to a flaw that actually shows one’s virtue. For example, George Washington apologized for his bad eyesight by saying, “my eyes have grown dim in the service of my country.”
While audiences are probably well attuned to bragging, they may be more receptive to false modesty (or humblebragging, as it’s sometimes called).
People can also improve their rhetorical virtue by changing their position. Changing positions should be done very sparingly, but it can come in handy at times. Another clever trick for boosting rhetorical virtue is to pretend to choose something when, in fact, you have no choice. For example, Dorothy Jr. once told Heinrichs that she’d chosen not to go to a party because there’d be alcohol, knowing full-well that he wasn’t going to let her go, anyway.
Changing one’s position can seem weak and opportunistic, so it needs to be done very skillfully (and probably sparingly). The trick of pretending to choose an inevitable choice is useful because it makes the persuader seem to agree with an option the audience already supports.