Basics of Argumentation: Arguing Ethically

What's ethical?

Argumentation has been studied extensively since ancient times, and that's why many of these classic fallacies have Latin names. Often fallacies are divided into Logical, Emotional, and Ethical Fallacies. For more information on fallacies in general, see Writer's Reference §A3. This paper will primarily be about ethical fallacies.

Ethics (which is not quite the same thing as ethos) is inevitably tied up with systems of belief and morality. I have really liked the practical two-part definition of communication ethics presented by one technical writing textbook.1

  1. Give the audience everything it needs to know. To see things as clearly as you do, people need more than just a partial view. Don't bury readers in needless details, but do make sure they get all the facts and get them straight.
  2. Give the audience a clear understanding of what the information means. Even when all the facts are known, they can be misinterpreted. Do all you can to ensure that your readers understand the real meaning, as you know it.

In a way, ethical violations are violations of the writer's basic aim to do something to the reader. In the case of ethical violations, "do something" becomes "deceive or manipulate unfairly."

Some Fallacies of Ethical Argument

Appeal to False Authority

Straw Man


Moral Equivalence

Ad Hominem Argument

Partial Quotation


Here are two charts. The left one seems to make a strong case, but does it by simple graphic manipulation. The baseline for the chart isn't zero, but 182.

Misrepresenting Widget  Widget Actual

1. Lannon, John M. Technical Writing. 6th Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. page 80.

2. "The President and the Straw Man." CBS News, 18 Mar. 2006, main1419363.shtml. Accessed 5 June 2020.

3. "Atheism: Common Arguments." Secular Web: Atheism, Agnosticism, Naturalism, Skepticism and Secularism, Internet Infidels, 2020, Accessed 5 June 2020.

4. Chalfant, Morgan. "Trump Calls Pelosi a 'Sick Woman' After Her Remarks on His Weight." The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing, 19 May 2020, Accessed 5 June 2020.

5. Vance, Ashlee. "Bush's Search for Clean Cuban Hookers Goes Awry." The Register, 28 July 2004, Accessed 24 June 2020.

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Revised 6/24/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: