Publication Date


Date of Final Oral Examination (Defense)


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Arts in English, Rhetoric and Composition



Major Advisor

Kelly Myers, Ph.D.


Bruce Ballenger, Ph.D.


Clyde Moneyhun, Ph.D.


For centuries, Aristotle’s ethos has been a crucial component of persuasive rhetoric, with flagrant violations of character extinguishing the credibility of speakers and rendering their messages ineffective. However, the 2016 US presidential election challenged the rhetorical value of good character and left voters unable to articulate feelings about perceived moral transgressions. In some ways, this inability to express what bothered many is tied to the various constraints of the first-year writing classroom, where instructors often oversimplify definitions of ethos in a way that removes a facet known as aretê—a concept defined as moral virtue and one especially beneficial for navigating morally complex and controversial conversations.

This study argues for a revival of aretê in our classrooms as a way of helping students engage in and explore their own questions of morality, character, and ethos. Utilizing revised conceptions of ethos and aretê that incorporate modern notions of moral virtue, this study analyzed transcripts of the three presidential debates to quantify how and when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump employed morally loaded language. The results of the lexical analysis surfaced a reduced moral vocabulary, which illustrates the need for a more nuanced understanding of ethos and a larger aretiac lexicon in our classroom. What this research advocates for is not that we anchor every iteration of ethos in moral virtue, but rather that alternative conceptions are invited into the classroom as a way of helping students enact new identities and participate in new spheres.