The Objectivity of Value: An Evangelical Critique of Toulmin’s Reason in Ethics -- By: Donald T. Williams

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 01:3 (Jul 1999)
Article: The Objectivity of Value: An Evangelical Critique of Toulmin’s Reason in Ethics
Author: Donald T. Williams


The Objectivity of Value:
An Evangelical Critique of Toulmin’s Reason in Ethics

Donald T. Williams, Ph.D.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Milton’s Satan

The human mind has no more power of inventing
a new value than of imagining a new primary colour,
or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for
it to move in.

C. S. Lewis

This, I trowe, be Treuthe; who can teche the bettere,
Loke thou suffre hym to seyn, and siththe lere it aftir.

Piers Plowman

The importance of the relationship between legal and ethical reasoning and objective morality makes Stephen Toulmin’s The Place of Reason in Ethics one of the more important treatments of philosophical ethics to be published in recent years. The book tries to answer the question, “what is a good reason in ethics?” or more specifically, “What is it that makes a particular set of facts, R, a good reason for a particular ethical conclusion, E?”1 How, in other words, may ethical decisions be justified? In spite of some penetrating analysis, it fails to provide an adequate answer, and the reasons for that failure make Toulmin’s work an excellent point of departure for a fresh look at the real nature of values and how they relate to the ethical decisions we face.

Toulmin begins by surveying three ‘classical’ approaches to the problems of ethical decision. They are: (1) The ‘objective’ approach, which views the good as a property which an act may intrinsically possess, (2) The ‘subjective’ approach, which views the good as a projection of human feeling, and (3) The ‘imperative’ approach, which views the good as a pseudo-concept used for persuasion.2 These ‘classic’ approaches are united by the fact that their aim is to pin down, or characterize, ethical concepts by defining them. Toulmin finds each of them inadequate as a basis for ethics. His own approach is to “discover what reasons and arguments should be accepted in support of ethical decisions.”3

Toulmin takes what might be called a “functional” approach to ethics. If we are to reason correctly about ethical problems, we must know what ethics are for. The function of ethics is “to correlate our feelings and behaviour in such a way as to make the fulfillment of everyone’s aims and desires as far as possible compatible.”4

The above statement sounds on the surface like a ...

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