An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics Analysis

Stephen Toulmin


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The central problem of ethics, according to Stephen Toulmin, is that of finding a way to distinguish good moral arguments from weak ones, good reasons from poor ones, and deciding whether there comes a point in the course of moral argument when the giving of reasons becomes superfluous. The inquiry he undertakes in An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics centers on the question of what makes a particular set of facts that bear on a moral decision a “good reason” for acting in a particular way. The author contends that he has no interest in a circular argument to the effect that a “good reason” is one that supports the kind of act he would regard as a “good act”; his task is to clarify the nature of moral reasoning and the kind of logic that goes into it.

Toulmin’s conclusion is that moral reasoning is a kind of inductive reasoning: One examines how various courses of action have worked out and determines to what degree those courses of action have reduced conflicts of interest and to what degree and in what respects certain ways of life lead to satisfaction and fulfillment and minimize or eliminate misery and frustration—and then one appeals to the results of empirical inquiry as providing good reasons for adopting certain principles (or following established ones) and for pursuing certain ways of life.

The discussion of the problem is divided into four major areas of inquiry: “The Traditional Approaches,” “Logic and Life,” “The Nature of Ethics,” and “The Boundaries of Reason.” The author begins with a discussion of the traditional approaches to ethics because the tradition has had a considerable influence, and there is the possibility that some traditional theories have something helpful to say about moral reasoning.

Traditional Approaches to Ethics

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The traditional approaches, despite differences in details, fall into three classes, according to Toulmin: The “objective” approach regards such terms as “good” and “right” as attributing some property to whatever is so designated; the “subjective” approach regards such words as reports of feelings; and the “imperative” approach claims that value terms are without meaningful content (“pseudo-concepts”) but are used as persuasive devices.

The critique of the objective approach begins with a classification of properties (characteristics). Toulmin uses the term “simple qualities” to refer to such properties as redness, blueness, softness, hardness—properties perceived by the senses, characteristics we become aware of through seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, and tasting. “Complex qualities,” such as that of a polygon’s having 259 sides, are recognized only by undertaking a complex procedure of sense observation involving the use of criteria of identification. Finally, “scientific qualities” are those that cannot be directly perceived through the use of the senses but involve, in addition to sense observation, reference to scientific theory. Because philosophers generally have tended to regard goodness, if it is a property, as either a simple or a complex quality, Toulmin confines his attention to those two possibilities.

Terms used to refer to simple properties are taught ostensively, Toulmin argues; one uses the term while giving examples or by pointing to things having the qualities. However, he argues, one certainly cannot teach the use of the term “good” in this way; hence, it is unlikely that goodness is a simple property. When two persons disagree in their descriptions of simple qualities they both clearly indicate, their difference is a linguistic one: They talk about the same simple quality but use different words in doing so. However, those who use value terms, when it is clear they are talking about the same thing, do not regard a difference in the application of value terms as merely a linguistic difference. Again, it is unlikely that goodness is a simple quality.


(The entire section is 880 words.)


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In part 2, entitled “Logic and Life,” Toulmin examines reasoning and its uses, experience and explanation, and reasoning and reality. He argues at the outset of his extensive discussion that the logic of utterances is inseparable from the point of the activity in which the utterances are used. He warns against supposing that there is but one kind of activity called “reasoning”; there are many ways of using language other than the descriptive use, and if close attention is paid to the variety of uses to which language is put (like a set of tools, to use philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s image, which Toulmin mentions), it becomes credible that the kind of reasoning involved in a purposive activity may involve for its expression a number of uses of language. This point is in line with Toulmin’s insistence on looking afresh at ethical reasoning to discover what is happening there—a great deal more than simply describing objects and expressing feelings.

Toulmin offers an analysis of scientific reasoning to make the point that what serve as “good reasons” in science—namely, “those which are predictively reliable, coherent and convenient”—are bound up with the purposes of science. There is, thus, a relativity of reasons and of the value of reasons to the purpose of the activity in which the reasons play a part. For the same reason, as he argues in “Reasoning and Reality,” it is nonsense to ask what is “really real”; scientific “reality” and artistic “reality” are not incompatible: Each relates to the distinctive purposive activity that generates talk about the real....

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Moral Reasoning

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In his exposition of the “Logic of Moral Reasoning,” Toulmin first explains that questions concerning whether a contemplated action is or is not right amount to questions about whether the action does or does not conform to a principle embedded in the community’s moral code. Giving reasons in support of one’s moral decisions, then, amounts to referring to a principle that governs action in such cases. The principle, of course, according to Toulmin, embodies accepted social practice.

Where there are conflicts of duties relative to principles, it may turn out that only by a comparison of estimated consequences can it be decided what would be the right thing to do. Rightness, however, is determined by the consideration of reasons, not by direct reference to consequences. The fundamental question is always whether a way of action is in accord with a principle established by conventional practice or is likely to harmonize interests or prevent suffering.

When the justice of a principle is called into question, it is relevant to consider the utility of the principle in harmonizing interests and preventing avoidable suffering, but it is not proper moral reasoning to decide whether an act in accordance with a principle is likely in a given case to have utility; there is already a reason for acting in a certain way, and it is a sufficient moral reason: namely, that the action is required by the principle.

It is possible that alternative courses of action might both satisfy the requirements of moral choice, either by both being in accord with the same principle (code) or having probable equally beneficial effects; in such a case, writes Toulmin, moral considerations no longer apply: If a choice...

(The entire section is 705 words.)


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Additional Reading

Bove, Paul A. “The Rationality of Disciplines: The Abstract Understanding of Stephen Toulmin.” In After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. This book discusses French literature from 1900 through the 1980’s and includes material on Michel Foucault, the prose treatment of power, and human understanding in relation to the writings of Stephen Toulmin.

Dellapenna, Joseph W., and Kathleen M. Farrell. “Modes of Judicial Discourse: The Search for Argument Fields.” In Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al. Studies of Argumentation in Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris, 1987. This article uses the theories of Toulmin to examine legal argumentation and legal language.

Fromm, Harold. “Stephen Toulmin’s Postmodernism. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, by Stephen Toulmin.” The Hudson Review 43, no. 4: 654-660. An in-depth discussion of Toulmin’s book.

Fulkerson, Richard. “The Toulmin Model of Argument and the Teaching of Composition.” In Argument Revisited, Argument Redefined: Negotiating Meaning in the Composition Classroom. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996. The theories of argumentation of...

(The entire section is 451 words.)