Stephen Edelston Toulmin

Stephen Edelston Toulmin (born 1922) was an important ethical philosopher of the latter half of the 20th century.

Stephen Edelston Toulmin was born in London in 1922. He was educated at Cambridge University and received his doctorate in philosophy in 1948. He began his teaching career in 1949 and taught in many different academic institutions, including Oxford University, the University of Melbourne (Australia), Leeds University, New York University, Columbia University, Stanford University, Hebrew University (Jerusalem), the University of London, Brandeis University, Michigan State, the University of California in Santa Cruz, and the University of Southern California. Beginning in 1973 he was the professor of social thought and philosophy within the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Toulmin published extensively; among his many books are The Place of Reason in Ethics (1950); The Uses of Argument (1958); Philosophy of Science (1953); The Fabric of the Heavens (co-authored, 1960); Foresight and Understanding (1960); The Architecture of Matter (co-authored, 1963); The Discovery of Time (1965); Human Understanding (1972); Wittgenstein's Vienna (co-authored, 1973), Knowing and Acting (1976); Metaphysical Beliefs (co-authored, 1957); Physical Reality: Philosophical Essays on 20th Century Physics (1970); and The Return to Cosmology (1982). He was editor with Harry Woolf and Norwood Hanson of What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (1971). In 1990, he published two major works, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity and The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, co-authored with Albert R. Jonsen.


Emphasis on Moral Reasoning

The Place of Reason in Ethics attempts to use the methods of philosophical analysis in the service of ethical reasoning. Toulmin's fundamental concern is to clarify the nature of moral reasoning and the kind of logic that accompanies it. Ethics, as a philosophical discipline, ought to attempt to discover good moral arguments (with good moral reasons) and to distinguish those arguments from weak ones (and bad moral reasons). The central problem that Toulmin dealt with in The Place of Reason in Ethics is what makes up a "good reason" for behaving in a particular moral way.

Toulmin argues that moral reasoning is inductive—that is, that one comes upon good reasons for acting in a certain way based upon some kind of empirical evidence. The moral philosopher examines various courses of action and attempts to discover how these courses of action have been successful in introducing human satisfaction and fulfillment and also in reducing misery and suffering. One then appeals to the results of the empirical study as providing "good reasons" for accepting certain moral principles and following a certain moral way of life.

Toulmin then examined the three traditional approaches to the problem of ethical decision—the objective, the subjective, and the imperative—all three of which he considered incorrect approaches which are therefore misleading for ethical decision-making. The objective approach is that approach which assigns goodness or rightness as a property; the subjective relates feelings or attitudes to the validity of the moral act; the imperative approach asserts that moral judgments are related to the persuasive function of language (and are therefore pseudo-concepts).

The objective approach fails, according to Toulmin, because there is no valid method by which there can be agreement on the identification of values as properties. A moral claim—for example, "It is good"—does not have the same logical status as an empirical description—for example, "It is raining." A moral value, therefore, cannot be evaluated on the basis of its properties. When people disagree about values, their disagreement is other than linguistic. They really believe that they possess a different understanding of what is moral in that situation.

The subjective approach also fails as a method by which to evaluate a moral concept. The subjective approach argues that once there is agreement regarding the facts of a moral situation then the only differences are related to one's feelings or attitudes. But that approach is not good enough, Toulmin argued. It is not good enough to know what one's attitudes are regarding a moral judgment; one also wants to know what are the reasons (or what are the good reasons) for supporting one moral judgment over another. Toulmin argued that it is an intellectual mistake to ask whether ethical criteria, such as "good" and "right, " are either objective or subjective. Moral reasoning consists in doing something else.

The imperative approach next came under Toulmin's scrutiny. The imperative approach, which holds that moral judgments are basically moral ejaculations or commands, can find no place for reasons. The imperative approach finally leads to a kind of moral pessimism—no moral judgments are true because there are no objective identifiable subjects or objects to which moral terms pertain.

Because Toulmin was concerned to introduce reason into moral judgments, he next analyzed the meaning of "scientific" reasoning, assuming, as so many do, that reason and scientific endeavors belong inextricably together. But he insisted that just as there are "good" reasons in science, so there can also be "good" reasons in ethics. Scientific reasons intend to alter one's expectations in sense experience. Moral reasons, on the other hand, intend to alter feelings and behavior. Both science and ethics, therefore, employ reason and the use of reason in their labors.

Moral reasons, for Toulmin, are those reasons which relate an act, as a duty, to the moral code of a community and those reasons which relate to the avoidance of suffering and annoyance of the members of that community. For the members of a community to live together it is necessary to embrace a common moral code. Moral reasons, which make up that communal moral code, are rationally derived: that is, they are related to human welfare and the harmonization of the interests and actions of the members of the community.


The Role of Social Practice

Toulmin later developed a principle by which moral judgments are made: "the 'rightness' of an action is dependent upon a consideration of moral reasons, based upon principles derived from social practice, and not upon the consequences of an action." (The Place of Reason in Ethics) To be reasonable within a moral community is to consider the effects of a particular moral act upon those who comprise that community. For that reason, Toulmin argued, a particular moral act is an instance of valid moral reasoning if the act (and the rational argument for the act) is worthy of acceptance by everyone. The study of moral reasoning can lead one to moral judgments which are true and helpful; true in the sense that they can correct mistaken moral assumptions.

Toulmin learned a great deal from the way Wittgenstein went about the philosophical enterprise. In moral reasoning, the philosopher does not simply fix his attention on the meaning of moral terms taken in isolation. The philosopher must rather seek to grasp the overall meaning of the discourse under analysis. Each discourse, morality as well as science, has its own procedures, and in accordance with these procedures we judge whether something is or is not good evidence for a certain claim.

Some commentators on Toulmin's moral philosophy regard his position as a kind of "rule" utilitarianism, because he is primarily concerned with the justification of the rules of conduct which are actually operative in a society. Toulmin argued that moral rules and moral principles are to be justified by discovering which of the rules or principles, if consistently acted upon, will most likely lead to the least amount of avoidable suffering all around. It is clear, then, that for Toulmin those moral practices within a society which cause the least amount of suffering for mankind were the moral practices which ought to be accepted by that society. Toulmin, of course, accepted a negative formulation of the utilitarian formula. It is easier, he argued, to determine what will probably cause greater suffering within a society than it is to determine what probably will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

Generally Toulmin followed the same perspective for science. He gave an account of scientific theorizing as being more like the making of maps to enable one to find one's way about than like the process of generalization described in the classic theories of induction. For Toulmin, the question was not whether a scientific law is true, but, rather, "when does it hold?" Laws are regarded not as sentences about the world but as rules for conducting oneself within it. The logic of a scientific law must therefore yield to a pragmatic consideration. A scientific law functions then as a criterion to furnish successful predictions. Scientific laws, in Toulmin's view, are neither true nor false, but serve instrumentally to facilitate the procedure of inference.

In 1997, Toulmin became the 26th recipient of the U.S. government's highest honor for intellectual achievement (from the National Endowment for the Humanities). His acceptance speech, the annual Jefferson Lecture, was to be focused on "the importance of dissent."

During the 1990s, Toulmin remained on the faculty and continued to teach religion, international relations, communications and anthropology at the University of Southern California.


Further Reading on Stephen Edelston Toulmin

George C. Kerner in his book The Revolution in Ethical Theory (1966) analyzed Toulmin's ethical philosophy (along with that of G. E. Moore, Charles L. Stevenson, and R. M. Hare). He included Toulmin's ethical philosophy as a substantial part of "the radical change that ethical theory has undergone during the present century." John Rawls wrote an important review of Toulmin's The Place of Reason in Ethics in The Philosophical Review 60 (October 1951). William K. Frankena's book Perspectives on Morality (1976) provides a balanced analysis of Toulmin's ethical philosophy. A substantial review of Toulmin's Cosmopolis appears in Todorov, Tzvetan, Post-modernism, a Primer for The New Republic (May, 1990). It is also reviewed by Richard Luecke in Christian Century (October, 1990).