The Good-Reasons Theory or Good Reasons approach, a theory in the realm of meta-ethics, states simply that conduct is justified if the actor has good reasons for that conduct. The Good Reasons approach is not opposed to ethical theory per se, but it is antithetical to wholesale justifications of morality and stresses that moral conduct requires no ontological or other foundation beyond concrete justifications.
This approach is associated mainly with the ideas of Stephen Toulmin, Jon Wheatley, and Kai Nielsen.
Opposition to the Good-Reasons Theory
In Jean Renoir's greatest movie, La Règle du jeu (in English Rules of the Game), the character Octave (played by Renoir himself) says, "Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons,” which in English translates to, “What is terrible about this world is that everyone has his reasons” (i.e. everyone thinks he is right).
The problem is that everyone—including the suicide bomber, the Nazi, the serial rapist or killer, or average person—indeed does have what he or she thinks are good reasons for whatever he or she does, and thus is able to think that he or she is right. Thus the good-reasons approach that claims that conduct is ethically justified if the actor has good reasons for it is made vacuous—every actor does, in fact, think that he has good reasons for what he does, or is at least able to produce what he thinks are good reasons if challenged or questioned.
Therefore it is more-or-less useless to tell us that action is ethically justified if the actor has good reasons for the action. Everyone—even the most dense or unreflective or even evil person—knows that and uses that approach.
The difficult central problems of ethics remain: What are genuinely good reasons (if any) for action, and how can those (supposedly) good reasons be discovered, justified, and separated from the allegedly good reasons that are not genuinely good reasons? Those have been the central problems from at least as early as Plato, and they remain wholly pertinent and germane today and into the future.
There may be a small bit of usefulness and insight in the good-reasons theory—It holds that justifications (i.e. good reasons) can be particular, applying to an individual action, without being general (i.e. without necessarily appealing to or using an overarching ethical theory). This means that no overarching ethical theory is necessarily needed to justify particular actions, and that would mean, by extension, that no overarching ethical theory is necessarily needed at all since every ethical problem or dilemma is, when it comes down to it, an individual case or circumstance.
The problem with that approach or attempt is that it separates reason-giving from any theory or general principle(s) for reasons and reason-giving, makes the giving of reasons ad hoc, and thus further strengthening and supporting Renoir's assertion that this is a terrible thing. If there are no general or overarching theories or principles, then there seems to be no basis on which one can decide, other than taste or sentiment or personal preference, which reasons that are offered in justification of a particular act are good ones and which are not.
- Nielsen, Kai. "The 'Good Reasons Approach' and 'Ontological Justifications' of Morality." The Philosophical Quarterly 9 (35): 116–130, April 1959.
- Perry, R. C. "Some comments upon the “Good Reasons” approach in ethical theory." The Journal of Value Inquiry. Springer Netherlands, Volume 18, Number 3, September, 1984.
- Setiya, K. Reasons without rationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780691127491
- Toulmin, Stephen. An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.
- Wheatley, Jon. "Ethics Does Not Exist." Ethics 84 (1): 62–69, October 1973.
All links retrieved June 26, 2017.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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