An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics Analysis

Stephen Toulmin


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.