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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 classic expression of the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." But in reality, Toulmin’s new approach claims to be neither deontological nor utilitarian, neither objectivistic nor subjectivistic, as those words are normally understood. By isolating "good" reasons for actions, he hopes to be able to assert that some actions are "right," without having to admit that they are intrinsically so.[5]

"Duty" is that which is expected of a man by virtue of his membership in an ongoing community. This is a truism, for without rules for the harmonization of desire, community cannot exist. Thus, every community begins with a basic code, which operates deontologically. But as society grows more complex and new problems arise, the propriety of the original code may be questioned. Men may realize that the harmony of desires and aims in the community may, in the new circumstances, be better realized by a modification of the old code. Thus, teleological ethics arises as an extension of the deontological core.[6]

But Toulmin does not wish to allow his ethic to become wholly teleological. The end does not always justify the means. His example is that of a man driving on a torturous mountain road, who takes all the turns on the left side (i.e., the right side--he writes from a British point of view). In a blind turn, he meets a car on the wrong side of the road, and they collide head on. Though the results were bad, we may still say that the man who was driving on the legal side had done the "right" thing.[7] Given that he could not have foreseen the other vehicle, he had done the right thing, i.e., his duty, what was expected of him as a member of that society.

Thus, in normal circumstances, deontological ethics may remain in force. The only reason one needs for doing one’s duty is that it is what you are supposed to do. If a policeman asks the driver who was on the legal side of the road why he was where he was when the accident occurred, the only justification he needs is to simply to refer to the rule. In this simple case, "there is no more general ‘reason’ to be given beyond one which relates the action in question to an accepted social practice."[8]

When two rules conflict, however, one has to suspend the deontological in favor of the teleological.

Given two conflicting claims, that is to say, one has to weigh up, as well as one can, the risks involved in ignoring either, and choose ‘the lesser of two evils.’ Appeal to a single current principle, though the primary test of the rightness of an action, cannot therefore be relied on as a universal test: where this fails, we are driven back on our estimate of the probable consequences.[9]


It is not so much that the principles are invalidated by this recourse to teleology, but simply that life is so complex that no set of principles can adequately cover every case.

A more difficult kind of moral conflict occurs when the mores of two different communities are compared. In such a case one might ask a question like, "Which is it really right to do--to have only one wife like a Christian or anything up to four like a Muslim?" For Toulmin, this question is wrongly asked. It is like the question, "Is a light ray going past the sun really straight as the non-Euclidean theorist declares, or deflected, as the Euclidean theorist says?"[10] Since the community is the source of duty, one can only criticize an action or an institution ethically from within that community. Muslim marriage is not the same thing as Christian marriage, and their rightness may not be compared as if they fit under the same code. Christian marriage is right in a Christian society, and Muslim marriage is right in a Muslim society, period.

One cannot make a choice between two institutions belonging to the ethical codes of two different communities, because one must live in one community or the other. Therefore, when a question like the one above is asked, one is really calling for a choice between two ethical systems, i.e., two different ways of life. And, since the community is the source of duty, there is no standard outside of community whereby two differing communities may be judged. The choice is simply the personal one of which system would I rather live under?

When someone asked of two superficially similar institutions from different ways of life, ‘Which is the better?’ one may have to say that, by themselves, they are not comparable: all that can be compared are the ways of life as wholes. And this comparison is, if anything, a private one: which is to say, not that it cannot be reasoned about, but that, reason as you may, the final decision is personal.[11]

At this point, the reader may begin to feel somewhat uneasy about the whole fabric of Toulmin’s system. The one positive contribution that Hitler’s Germany made to the world was that it provided a test case fatal to all humanistic ethics, whether they be subjectivistic, imperitival, utilitarian, or "rational." If ethical judgments can only be made from within a given community, and choices between "ways of life" are purely personal, what is to prevent any given community from deciding that genocide of certain elements is the best way to fulfill the "function of ethics": to harmonize as far as possible the aims and desires of everyone in the community? If the community decides that the elimination of an otherwise innocent group such as the Jews (or a helpless group such as the "unwanted" unborn) would best fulfill that function for the rest, what is to prevent them from committing the murder of six million (or more) human beings?

The answer is that nothing would prevent it except either a change of heart on their part or the forceful intervention of other communities. But if choices between ‘ways of life’ are to be reduced to personal preference, where is the moral justification for such intervention? There is none. We are reduced to an ethic of ‘might makes right.’ The absurdity of saying that actions or institutions may only be ethically judged from within the communal code of which they are a part, and that judgments between codes are only personal, becomes obvious when these things are seen in the light of the harsh realities of history.

Toulmin is not unaware that such a charge can be leveled against his approach.

. . . I recall a conversation with Bertrand Russell in which he remarked as an objection to the present account of ethics, that it would not have convinced Hitler. But whoever supposed that it should? We do not prescribe logic as a treatment for lunatics or expect philosophers to produce a panacea for psychopaths.[12]

But Toulmin has entirely missed the point of the objection. Hitler may or may not have been a lunatic or a psychopath--that is unimportant. What is important is the fact that here a community had as part of its code--at least it acquiesced in and condoned, which amounts to the same thing--an immoral practice. It saw as congruent with the harmonization of its aims and desires the extinction of an entire race. And Toulmin’s calling the leader of that community a lunatic and psychopath does not remove the fact that his own account of ethics finally makes opposition to such genocide from outside that community not a moral duty but an act of personal preference.

This absurdity is the necessary end result of every ethical system that refuses to recognize that there are some acts which are intrinsically right and others which are intrinsically wrong regardless of either the consequences or a man’s or community’s ability to perceive them. It will not help to appeal to the "code" of the human community at large as over against that of a smaller community. This simply means that some men decide what is right for other men, which reduces rapidly again to the principle that might makes right. The only ethic that is adequate to deal with man’s real ethical dilemmas must therefore be one which is derived from outside of ‘community’ altogether.

We have not yet begun to talk about a ‘revealed’ ethic (though if it turned out that there were one, it would certainly be helpful). That will come later. At present it will be sufficient if we recognize that, as C. S. Lewis put it, "degrees of value are objectively present in the universe.[13] In other words, wrongness is as much a property of the act of cruelty to the innocent and helpless as redness is the property of an apple; and the man who persists in denying the former is just as obviously culpable as the man who perversely insists on saying that an apple is blue.

But Toulmin has argued very cogently earlier in his book that values may not be logically classed as properties, and it is partially because of his conclusions at that point that he works out his system in the way that he does, trying futilely to shun ‘objectivism’ without embracing a sheer relativism. Therefore, before we can proceed to develop an ethic based on the objectivity of value, we must deal with the objections which Toulmin raises at that point.

According to Toulmin’s helpful analysis, there are three basic types of properties. First are what he calls ‘simple qualities.’ These are ‘unanalyzable’ properties such as primary colors, which cannot be defined in terms of simpler qualities, or in terms of an operation. The only way to explain what you mean by ‘red’ for example, is to point to a red object.

Secondly, there are what we may call ‘complex qualities.’ Like simple qualities, they are discoverable through observation; but unlike simple qualities, they are not discoverable through direct observation. An example is a 259-sided polygon. In order to tell whether a given polygon has the property of 259 sidedness, one must go through the operation or routine of counting the sides.

Thirdly, there are what may be called ‘scientific qualities.’ These are properties which are not observable in the strict sense at all. They can only be understood with reference to a scientific theory. An example of a scientific quality would be the straightness of a stick half submerged in water. The stick does not look straight at all; but we can understand that, with reference to the theories of optics, it really is still straight. These three categories of properties are not mutually exclusive; the straightness of the stick, for example, may be a simple quality when it is out of the water, and become a scientific property when it is partially submerged.[14]

With this scheme as a background, then, Toulmin goes on to ask whether there is not a difference between the way in which people disagree about properties and the way in which they disagree about ethical values. If a man will not agree that an apple is red, he is either color-blind or he simply does not understand the English language, and must be taught the meaning the word ‘red’ through example. If two men disagree about the number of sides in a given polygon, they may both repeat the routine of counting them. If they disagree about a scientific quality, the theory may need to be explained or clarified. In any of these cases there is something that can be done to settle the disagreement, and, if the proper routine is carried through, we may expect agreement to be reached unless one of the parties is mentally defective or jesting.

But in disagreements about values, Toulmin insists, the case is entirely different.

If I am confident that both men are candid and in full possession of their faculties, and that both employ the same language, dialect, and usage. . . If, in addition, I know that they have counted together the sides of a given polygon, it will be . . .pointless to ask them whether they agree about its 259 sidedness. But , though I know all this, it will still not be silly to wonder, for example, whether they will agree that meekness is good, or that such-and-such is the right decision.[15]

We feel that disagreement concerning properties, given sincerity and the sufficiently rigorous application of the needed routines, ought to follow; we feel that agreement on values need not follow, and indeed that there are no routines to apply. Therefore, concludes Toulmin, values are not properties.

Translated into simple layman’s language, Toulmin’s argument comes out something like this. "It is more difficult to get people to agree on questions of value than on what I call questions of property. Therefore, there is a difference between values and properties." I submit that there is a much simpler explanation for this difficulty than the disjunction of values from properties. It is simply that people generally have a higher personal stake in what we call values than they do in other properties. That is what makes them values: the fact that they are statements of what people, positively or negatively, value. But in every other important respect, they function in exactly the same way as other properties do.

When we ascribe the property ‘badness’ to acts of wanton cruelty directed against the innocent, for example, we are saying that such acts are always characterized by a certain quality, regardless of the response of any observer: they are worthy of condemnation. In a case such as this--what Lewis called "axioms of practical reason"[16] --badness is in fact a ‘simple quality.’ To deny that such acts are bad is precisely to be either ignorant of the meaning of plain English, or to be morally perverse. It is the downfall of humanistic ethical systems that they refuse to take moral perversity into account.

Though he fails in his attempt to formulate a workable, non-objectivist basis for ethical decision, there are some positive insights for Christian ethics that we can gain from professor Toulmin’s analysis of the nature of properties. If basic ethical concepts are indeed simple qualities, then we can see something of how ethical concepts are learned. Simple qualities like ‘red’ can only be learned by being shown many examples of objects which possess the property. Our concepts of good and evil are learned in much the same way: our parents and then our peers react with praise or condemnation to various things that we do, and thus we build up a composite picture of what ‘good’ is, which we may apply to questions such as "What kinds of things are characterized by the predicate ‘good’?" "Ought I to do A?" "Should B be permitted to do C?" Etc.

The objectivity of value built into the world by its Creator is sufficient to ensure that by this process man will normally be able to gain a workable, if imperfect, concept of good and evil (Romans 2:14-15), though the moral perversity he inherits from Adam keeps him from following, indeed sometimes affirming, even that basic concept (Romans 1:18-32). This working concept may be reinforced and refined by reference to the full and accurate explication of the hierarchy of objective value which we believe is vouchsafed in Special Revelation. Thus, we may in this sense look at the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., as the Divinely sanctioned object lessons given to help us build up the most accurate possible concept of rightness and wrongness. On the most basic level, "Look: this apple is what I mean by red," and "Look: stealing--adultery--idolatry--etc.--is what I mean by wrong," may be very parallel statements. The Ten Commandments give us the basic colors of the spectrum. Then the various case laws of the Old Testament, the detailed instructions for "walking worthily of our calling" in the New, and numerous case studies of historical actions, motives, responses to situations, etc, in both, along with the recorded Divine approval or condemnation, are there to help us distinguish the finer shades and subtler hues in various lights. They are, in other words. "profitable" for "training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). They do not necessarily give us casuistry, a moral calculus to cover every conceivable situation. But they do teach us moral discernment based on an objective foundation of values which comes with Divine authority and does not change. Moses and Jesus, in effect, may both be saying, "These are the kinds of acts which possess the property of ‘rightness.’ Think of them until you get the flavor of the thing. Then apply those concepts to the ethical problems face in Christian liberty."


[1] Stephen Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics (Cambridge: The University Press, 1968), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,p. 137.

[5] See the discussion on the "objective" approach, pp. 9-28. We shall have occasion to treat this question in detail at a later point in this paper.

[6] Ibid., p. 141.

[7] Ibid., p. 145.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 147.

[10] Ibid., p. 149.

[11] Ibid., p. 153

[12] Ibid., p. 165n.

[13] C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: The Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 73.

[14] Toulmin, op. cit., pp. 10-12.

[15] Ibid., p. 20.

[16] See Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1965) for a classic discussion of the doctrine of objective value


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