An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics

by Stephen Toulmin
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 297

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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.

Nor is goodness a complex quality, Toulmin argues. Ethical disagreements cannot be settled by agreeing on procedures of observation and translation rules. Hence, goodness is not a directly perceived quality at all. (Also, Toulmin argues, it does not help matters to insist that goodness is a “nonnatural” quality; such an expression is either meaningless or contradictory—like “nontauroid bull.”)

The objective approach fails because it cannot provide a method for agreeing on the identification of values as properties. Toulmin suggests that the objective view appealed to many thinkers because they suppose that “It is red” and “It is good” are alike in attributing properties to things and that when people disagree about values, they are disagreeing about properties. However, Toulmin accounts for disagreements about values—about the rightness of an act, say—by pointing to differences in the reasons given for doing or not doing the act or differences of opinion as to whether the reasons are good reasons. Accordingly, Toulmin rejects the objective approach as not only unhelpful but also “a positive hindrance” to anyone interested in understanding moral reasoning.

The subjective approach is also unsatisfactory, Toulmin argues. In contending that what is fundamental in moral disagreement, once there is agreement as to the relevant facts, is a difference in feeling or attitude, the subjectivist denies that moral reasoning can finally have criteria of validity other than by appeals to attitudes. It is not enough to know, Toulmin insists, what one’s attitudes are toward various matters; one wants to know what they ought to be; and of the reasons that are given in support of moral judgments, one wants to know which are good reasons (not simply which of the reasons happens to appeal to one at the time).

Toulmin’s conclusion is that such terms as “good” and “right” refer neither to objective properties nor to subjective relations; he contends that it is a mistake to ask, “Are values objective or subjective?” as if they had to be one or the other. The key terms of moral reasoning are to be understood by realizing what constitutes moral reasoning.

The last of the traditional approaches is the “imperative” approach, the defense of the doctrine that moral judgments are fundamentally commands. The imperative theory, holding as it does that moral judgments are calls for agreement in feeling or attitude, does not allow for reasons; it finds no place for reason in ethics and consequently cannot account for the kind of dialogue that ensues when there are ethical disagreements. Like the objectivists and the subjectivists, the imperativist appears to be led into fallacy by the idea that if ethical judgments are to be true, they must be “about” some feature of the object or subject; hence, those who hold the imperative view argue that because there is no identifiable feature of object or subject with which moral terms are concerned, no moral judgment is true. The result, writes Toulmin, is a kind of pessimism.

The bright side of Toulmin’s criticism of traditional views is that he recognizes an important emphasis in each of the three kinds of theories rejected: The objectivist theory emphasizes the need in moral argument for good reasons; the subjectivist emphasizes the importance of the feelings of approval and obligation; and the imperative approach calls attention to the rhetorical force of moral judgments.


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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 question of whether ethics is a science is best approached, according to Toulmin, by noticing the difference in function between scientific and moral judgments. Scientific judgments are intended to alter expectations in experience; predictions are made that certain kinds of responses will follow from the activity of sensing various kinds of objects. Moral judgments, on the other hand, are intended to alter feelings and behavior. However, it has been a mistake to suppose that science involves the use of reason while ethics (or moral judgment) involves the use of rhetorical techniques and methods of rationalization. Both activities involve reason and the use of reasons; both may involve rhetoric and rationalization. What is important is to discover the difference between the two.

By examining the kinds of reasons given in support of moral claims, Toulmin concludes that two fundamental kinds of reasons (not necessarily distinct) count as “moral” reasons: those reasons that relate an act said to be a duty to the moral code of the community in which the reasons are advanced and those reasons that relate to the avoidance of the suffering, annoyance, or inconvenience of members of the community.

Accordingly, Toulmin argues that the idea of moral duty is intimately bound up with the practices adopted by a community to make living together possible and agreeable. Reasons relating to the moral code and reasons relating to human welfare come to the same thing: concern about harmonizing the interests and actions of the members of a community. Harmonizing interests requires procedures for settling conflicts of interest, and morality provides such procedures.

In the early stages of the development of a community’s ethics, sets of principles are devised to regulate action. However, as it becomes evident through experience that some principles are not effective in harmonizing interests and that in particular situations, moral principles may conflict, the development enters a critical stage in which attention is paid to the “motives” of actions and the “results” of social practices. The consideration of consequences leads to modification of principles and hence to a more satisfactory moral code—that is, a moral code that is more successful in regulating conduct so as to prevent or minimize the suffering inflicted on people. Toulmin’s emphasis is not on action intended to increase happiness, as with the utilitarians, but on action intended to settle conflicts of interest and reduce suffering.

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 is made, it is made on other grounds.

Toulmin argues that there is no need for a general answer to the question, “What makes a reason a good reason or an ethical argument a valid argument?” It is sufficient to consider what would constitute a good reason in a particular case. To be “reasonable” in the making of moral decisions is to decide on the basis of good reasons, that is, reasons that are based on principles derived from social practice. To be reasonable in the appraisal of existing practices is to consider the effects of such practices on those who make up the community. It would be a mistake in definition, Toulmin argues, to define the term “right” either by reference to principles or to utility; “right” is to be understood by reference to what is reasonable.

In arguing with a person whose self-love has “overpowered his sense of right,” Toulmin declares, one finds oneself in a logical difficulty: If the sense of right has been overpowered, the appeal to reasons is futile. It does happen sometimes, however, that good reasons will weaken the hold of self-love and in that way restore the sense of right.

Toulmin discusses what he calls “equity in moral reasoning” and maintains that an ethical argument is an instance of moral reasoning only if it is worthy of acceptance by anyone; there must be a corresponding equity of moral principles—that is, the principles serve as general guides for anyone in the kinds of situations governed by the principles.

In part 4, “The Boundaries of Reason,” Toulmin writes about philosophical ethics and then about reason and faith. Some ethical theories are “disguised comparisons,” Toulmin argues; the debate between objectivists and subjectivists, although based on the mistake of thinking that the term “good” must refer either to an objective property or to a state of the speaker, nevertheless invites consideration of the degree to which the use of “good” is like (or unlike) property words and like or unlike words expressing feelings.

However, there is no need for ethical theories to be excursions into paradox, Toulmin contends. The study of moral reasoning yields explanatory accounts that are true and helpful; such accounts can correct whatever misconceptions may result from philosophical attempts to answer questions that themselves spring from mistaken assumptions.

Toulmin distinguishes between ethics and religion in this way: ethics provides reasons for choosing an action as “right”; religion uses concepts “spiritually”—to inspire people, enkindle their hearts, and give them the will to do the right thing.


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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 Toulmin are discussed in terms of language, stylistics, rhetoric, argumentation, and their relationship to the teaching of writing.

Kneupper, Charles W. “The Tyranny of Logic and the Freedom of Argumentation.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 5, no. 2 (1984): 113-121. This article discusses literary forms as well as the role of logic and the freedom of argumentation based on ideas of Toulmin.

Olson, Gary A. “Literary Theory, Philosophy of Science, and Persuasive Discourse: Thoughts from a Neo-Premodernist.” Journal of Advanced Composition 13, no. 2 (1993): 238-309. This article includes an interview with Toulmin. Toulmin discusses the relationship of philosophy of science to literary theory and criticism.

Seibert, Thomas M. “The Arguments of a Judge.” 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. The article discusses judicial argumentation, language, and pragmatics using the theories of argumentation of Toulmin.

Skinner, Quentin. “Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin.” The New York Review of Books 37, no. 6 (1990): 36. A full-length discussion of Toulmin’s book.

Smith, P. Christopher. “Towards a Discursive Logic: Gadamer and Toulmin on Inquiry and Argument.” In The Specter of Relativism: Truth, Dialogue and Phronesis in Philosophical Hermeneutics, edited by Lawrence K. Schmitt. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995. The article uses the theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Toulmin to examine the relationship of logic to hermeneutics.

Zappel, Kristiane. “Argumentation and Literary Text: Towards an Operational Model.” In Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al. Studies of Argumentation in Pragmatics and Discourse. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris, 1987. The article applies the theories of argumentation advanced by Stephen Toulmin to general literature.