Reflective Equilibrium Research Paper

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A ‘reflective equilibrium’ is the end point of a deliberative process in which we reflect on and revise our beliefs about an area of inquiry. The inquiry might be as specific as the question, ‘What is the right thing to do in this case?’ or ‘Is this the correct inference to make?’ Alternatively, the inquiry might be much more general, asking which theory or account of justice or right action we should accept, or which principles of inductive reasoning are justifiable. We can also refer to the process or method itself as the ‘method of reflective equilibrium.’ After briefly describing the method, we shall describe its history, the controversy surrounding it, and some implications it has for work in ethics.

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1. The Method Of Reflective Equilibrium

The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our ‘intuitions’) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs. An acceptable coherence requires that our beliefs not only be consistent with each other (a weak requirement), but that some of these beliefs provide support or provide a best explanation for others. We arrive at an optimal equilibrium when the component judgments, principles, and theories are ones we are uninclined to revise any further.

The method of reflective equilibrium has been advocated as a coherence account of justification in several areas of inquiry, including inductive and deductive logic as well as ethics and political philosophy. The key idea underlying this view of justification is that we ‘test’ various parts of our system of beliefs against the other beliefs we hold, looking for ways in which some of these beliefs support others, seeking coherence among the widest set of beliefs, and revising and refining them at all levels when challenges to some arise from others. For example, a moral principle or moral judgment about a particular case (or, alternatively, a rule of inductive or deductive inference or a particular inference) would be justified if it cohered with the rest of our beliefs about right action (or correct inferences) on due reflection and after appropriate revisions throughout our system of beliefs. By extension of this account, a person who holds a principle or judgment in reflective equilibrium with other relevant beliefs can be said to be justified in believing that principle or judgment.

Because there is revisability of our beliefs at all levels, this coherence view contrasts sharply with foundationalist approaches to justification. A foundationalist approach would take some of these beliefs— some theoretical claim, or moral principles or judgments—as fixed. As we shall see, however, the point of controversy, especially in ethics, is not that reflective equilibrium allows for the revision of moral judgments, but rather that it involves giving some justificatory weight to them.

2. Recent History

This approach to the justification of rules of inductive logic was proposed by Nelson Goodman in his classic Fact, Fiction, and Forecast (1955). Goodman’s idea was that we justify rules of inference in inductive or deductive logic by bringing them into reflective equilibrium with what we judge to be acceptable inferences in a broad range of particular cases. No rule of inference would be acceptable as a logical principle if it was not compatible with what we take to be acceptable instances of inferential reasoning. In this sense, our beliefs about acceptable rules of inference are constrained by the ‘evidence’ provided by what we believe to be good or correct examples or instances of inferential reasoning. At the same time, we should correct or revise our views about particular inferences we initially might think are acceptable if we come to see them as incompatible with rules that we generally accept and refuse to reject because they, in turn, best account for a broad range of other acceptable inferences.

Despite the fact that the origins of reflective equilibrium lie in mid-twentieth century discussions about the justification of inductive logic, its principal development through the rest of the century lies primarily in ethics and political philosophy. Specifically, the method was given prominence by John Rawls’s description and use of it in A Theory of Justice (1971). Most of our discussion will concentrate on its use in ethics and political philosophy. (Although accounts of the justification of empirical knowledge were developed that share with reflective equilibrium its coherentist approach, they generally do not make explicit use of the terminology of reflective equilibrium.)

Rawls argues that the goal of a theory of justice is to establish the terms of fair cooperation that should govern free and equal moral agents. On this view, the appropriate perspective from which to choose among competing conceptions or principles of justice is a hypothetical social contract or choice situation in which contractors are constrained in their knowledge, motivations, and tasks in specific ways. Because this choice situation is fair to all participants, Rawls calls the conception of justice that emerges from this choice ‘justice as fairness.’ Under these constraints, he argues, rational contractors would choose principles guaranteeing equal basic liberties and equality of opportunity, and a principle that permitted inequalities only if they made the worst-off groups in society as well off as possible.

Instead of simply accepting whatever principles contractors would choose under these constraints on choice, however, Rawls imposed a further condition of adequacy on them. The chosen principles must also match our considered judgments about justice in reflective equilibrium. If they do not, then we are to revise the constraints on choice in the contract situation until we arrive at a contract that yields principles that are in reflective equilibrium with our considered judgments about justice. In effect, the device of the contract must itself be in reflective equilibrium with the rest of our beliefs about justice. The contract helps us determine what principles we should choose from among competing views, but the justification for using it and designing it so that it serves that purpose must itself derive from the reflective equilibrium that it helps us achieve.

The method of reflective equilibrium thus plays a role in both the construction and justification of Rawls’s theory of justice. Critics of Rawls’s theory and his method of reflective equilibrium, especially utilitarians, challenge the prominence the method gives to moral judgments or intuitions. Indeed, some argue that there is no justificatory force to the contract itself if we ‘rig’ the contract so that it yields principles that match our intuitions (Hare 1973). Despite various criticisms, defenders of the method have elaborated it and extended its use in broad areas of ethics. Later in this paper we shall consider some of the criticisms of this method and some of its extensions in more detail. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to describe it more fully.

3. Narrow And Wide Reflective Equilibrium

3.1 Narrow Reflective Equilibrium

A reflective equilibrium may be narrow or wide (Rawls 1974). All of us are familiar with a process in moral deliberation in which we work back and forth between a judgment we are inclined to make about right action in a particular case, and the reasons or principles we offer for that judgment. Often we consider variations on the particular case, ‘testing’ the principle against them, and then refining and specifying it to accommodate our judgments about these variations. We might also revise what we say about certain cases if our initial views do not fit with the principles we grow inclined to accept.

Such a revision may constitute a moral surprise or discovery (Daniels 1996). Suppose, for example, that we are considering whether we should ignore age in the distribution of medical treatments. Many initially believe that age is a ‘morally irrelevant trait,’ just like race, and they would insist that rationing medical services by age is just as unacceptable as rationing by race. On considering a variety of cases, however, it might become apparent that we all age, but that we do not change race, and that this means that the different treatment of people at different ages, if systematically applied over the life span, does not create inequalities between persons, as it would in the case of race. We might be led by this realization to think that age rationing might be acceptable under some conditions, when race rationing would never be, and this would be a moral surprise for many who changed their view.

To the extent that we focus solely on particular cases and a group of principles that apply to them, we are seeking only narrow reflective equilibrium. Presumably, the principles we arrive at best ‘account for’ the cases examined. Others, however, may arrive at different narrow reflective equilibria, containing different principles and judgments about justice. As a result, we still face an important question about justification unanswered by the method of narrow reflective equilibrium: which set of beliefs about justice should we accept?

Because narrow reflective equilibrium does not answer this question, it may seem to be a descriptive method appropriate to moral anthropology, not a normative account of justification in ethics. In fact, Rawls (1971) at one point suggested that arriving at the principles that match our moral judgments in reflective equilibrium might reveal our ‘moral grammar’ in a way that is analogous to uncovering the grammar that underlies our syntactic ability as native speakers of a language to make judgments about grammatical form. In support of the analogy, some contemporary theorists who systematically examine our moral intuitions, often through hypothetical as opposed to real cases, believe they are uncovering a moral structure of principles that is a priori.

Uncovering a syntax, however, is a descriptive and not a justificatory task. Once we can identify the grammar or rules that best account for a person’s syntactic competency, we do not ask the question, ‘Should that person have this grammar?’ We are satisfied to have captured the grammar underlying a person’s idiolect. In ethics and political philosophy, in contrast, we must answer that justificatory question, especially since there is often disagreement among people about what is right, disagreement that is not resolved simply by pursuing narrow reflective equilibrium.

3.2 Wide Reflective Equilibrium

Rawls’s proposal is that we can achieve real justification in the choice of principles of justice by broadening the circle of beliefs that must cohere. In a wide reflective equilibrium, for example, we broaden the field of relevant moral and nonmoral beliefs to include an account of the conditions under which it would be fair for reasonable people to choose among competing principles, as well as evidence that the resulting principles constitute a feasible or stable conception of justice, that is that people could sustain their commitment to such principles.

For example, the constraints on choice in Rawls’s contract situation, such as the veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing facts about ourselves and our specific preferences, require justification. Rawls needs to show that these constraints are ‘fair’ to all contractors (thus ‘justice as fairness’ is his label for this procedural account of how we find out what is just). To provide such justification, Rawls appeals to beliefs about the fundamental ‘moral powers’ of ‘free and equal’ agents (they can form and revise their conceptions of what is good and they have a sense of justice). He also appeals to the ideal of a well-ordered society in which principles of justice play a particular role as public principles for reconciling disputes. Rawls must even provide us with an account of ‘primary social goods,’ necessary if agents who do not know their own actual preferences are to decide what principles would be better for them to choose. The device of the contract is thus in reflective equilibrium with certain background theories that themselves contain moral beliefs. The contract is not simply based on uncontroversial assumptions about human rationality (although it describes a rational choice problem within the constraints it imposes). Without acceptance of this wider circle of moral beliefs, Rawls’s construction lacks support.

Our beliefs about justice are justified (and, by extension, we are justified in holding them) if they cohere in such a wide reflective equilibrium. Obviously, the method of wide reflective equilibrium is here only illustrated by appeal to the detail of Rawls’s use of it. If we abstract from that detail, we see that there is a complex structure and interaction of beliefs, at many levels of generality, that bear on the construction of an account of justice. We shall later return to this point when we talk about implications of this method for work in ethics.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls seemed to think that all people might converge on a common or shared wide reflective equilibrium that included ‘justice as fairness,’ the conception of justice for which he argues. Wide reflective equilibrium thus played a role in the construction of the theory, helping ‘us’ to articulate its key features in ways that led to principles that matched ‘our’ considered judgments. At the same time, wide reflective equilibrium constituted an account of justification. Shared agreement on that wide equilibrium would produce a well-ordered society governed by principles guaranteeing equal basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the requirement that inequalities be arranged to make the worst-off groups as well off as possible.

In his later work, Poltical Liberalism (1993), Rawls abandons the suggestion that all people might converge in the same, shared wide reflective equilibrium that contains his conception of justice. This change comes about because Rawls believes that justification must accommodate the unavoidable ‘fact’ that human reason, exercised under conditions of liberty, will yield a pluralism of reasonable comprehensive moral views. Because of ‘reasonable pluralism,’ Rawls recasts justice as fairness as a ‘free standing’ political conception of justice on which people with different comprehensive views may agree in an ‘overlapping consensus.’ The public justification of such a political conception involves no appeal to the philosophical or religious views that appear in the comprehensive doctrines that form this overlapping consensus. Instead, we might think of this process of working back and forth among the key shared ideas in the public, democratic culture and the articulated features of the political conception of justice as a political reflective equilibrium (Daniels 1996).

Although there is no convergence on a shared wide reflective equilibrium that contains the political conception of justice, wide reflective equilibrium still plays a critical role in justification. For individuals to be fully justified in adopting the political conception of justice, the conception articulated in the political reflective equilibrium, they must incorporate it within a wide reflective equilibrium that includes their own comprehensive moral or religious doctrine. It will count as a reasonable view for them only if it coheres with their other (religious and philosophical) beliefs in reflective equilibrium. Over time, people modify their comprehensive views so that they may accommodate the overlapping consensus, a process that involves both philosophical reflection and the moderating influence of living under institutions that are governed by the shared conception of justice.

4. Criticisms Of Reflective Equilibrium

4.1 Challenges To Moral Intuitions

Central to the method of reflective equilibrium in ethics and political philosophy is the claim that our considered moral judgments about particular cases carry weight, if only initial weight, in seeking justification. This claim is controversial. Some of the most vigorous criticism of it has come from utilitarians, and it is instructive to see why.

A traditional criticism of utilitarianism is that it leads us to moral judgments about what is right which conflict with our ‘ordinary’ moral judgments. In response, some utilitarians accept the relevance of some of these judgments and argue that utilitarianism is compatible with them. Thus Mill argued for a utilitarian foundation for our beliefs about the importance of individual liberty. Some utilitarians have even argued that key features of our ‘common sense morality’ approximate utilitarian requirements, and that we have acquired these beliefs just because they do, unconsciously, reflect what promotes utility—they reflect the wisdom of a heritage.

An alternative utilitarian response to the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with certain ordinary moral judgments is to dismiss these judgments as pretheoretical ‘intuitions.’ As such, they are likely to result from cultural indoctrination and thus reflect superstition, bias, and mere historical accident. On this view, moral intuitions or judgments should have no evidentiary credentials and should play no role in moral theory construction or justification. Indeed, as the prominent utilitarians Richard Brandt and Richard Hare argued against Rawls, simply making ‘coherent’ a set of beliefs that have no ‘initial credibility’ cannot produce justification, since coherent fictions are still only fictions. Indeed, when Rawls describes the conditions under which we might solicit considered moral judgments, namely that people be calm and have adequate information about the cases, they do not by themselves do anything to assuage the utilitarian worries.

This criticism has some force, since two standard ways of supplying credentials for initial judgments are not available. One traditional way to support the reliability of these judgments or intuitions is to claim, as eighteenth-century theorists did, that they are the result of a special moral faculty that allows us to grasp particular moral facts or universal principles. Modern proponents of reflective equilibrium reject such mysterious faculties. Indeed, they claim moral judgments are revisable, not foundational.

A second way to support the initial credibility of considered judgments is to draw an analogy between them and observations in science or everyday life. For example, what counts as observational evidence in science depends on theory, and theory may give us reasons to reject some observations as not constituting counterevidence to a scientific law or theory. In this way we might see an analogy between the revisability of moral judgments and observations.

Developing this analogy, however, seems to require that we also tell some story about why moral judgments are reliable ‘observations’ about what is right. Perhaps we might need something like the causal story that some theorists of knowledge offer to explain the reliability of observations. Since no such story is forthcoming, opponents argue, proponents of reflective equilibrium must reject the requirement or give up the analogy. Proponents of reflective equilibrium might reject the requirement by suggesting it is premature to ask for such a story in ethics or by claiming that we can provide no analogous causal story for credible judgments we make in other areas, including mathematics or logic.

It might seem that the burden of argument has shifted to advocates of reflective equilibrium to show why ‘initial credibility’ should be ascribed to moral judgments or intuitions. Defenders of reflective equilibrium may nevertheless reject this burden, arguing that critics, especially utilitarian critics, actually face the same problem. For example, Richard Brandt argues that ‘facts and logic’ alone, and not moral intuitions, should play a role in moral theory construction and justification. On Brandt’s view, we should choose moral principles when they are based on desires that have been subjected to maximal criticism by facts and logic alone (he calls it ‘cognitive psychotherapy’). We should avoid any appeal to moral intuitions that might infect this critique.

The desires that Brandt appeals to, however, are themselves shaped and influenced by the very same social structures that utilitarians complain have biased and corrupted our moral judgments. Nothing in the process of critique by facts and logic alone can eliminate this source of bias. If this claim is right, it undercuts the suggestion that we can step outside our beliefs to arrive at some more objective form of justification. Instead, we may be better off recognizing that our process of critique—in the method of wide reflective equilibrium—is explicit about exposing the sources of bias and historical accident to criticism and revision, rather than fooling ourselves into thinking that desires are some sort of morally uninfluenced layer of ‘facts.’

4.2 Other Criticisms Of Reflective Equilibrium

Other criticisms of reflective equilibrium in ethics have focused on points familiar from discussions in epistemology more generally. One important complaint concerns the vagueness of the concept of coherence. If we simply take logical consistency as the criterion for coherence, we have much too weak a constraint. What account can we give of a stronger notion?

More has to be said about how some parts of the system of beliefs ‘support or explain’ others than is provided in the account above. Critics of Rawls’s requirement that the contract situation be adjusted, if necessary, to yield principles that are in reflective equilibrium with our judgments about justice complained that this was a ‘rigged’ contract and that it did no justificatory work beyond reflective equilibrium. If, however, the moral judgments that play a role in discussions of fair process, the well-ordered society, and the moral powers of agents are somewhat independent of the considered judgments about justice, then we get the kind of independent support for the principles that add justificatory force. Little work has actually been done, however, to flesh out a stronger account of coherence in ethics as opposed to epistemology more generally, where coherentism has been defended and elaborated.

A second line of objection derives from anticoherentist accounts of justification rooted in the theory of knowledge. Some insist, for example, that coherence accounts of justification cannot be divorced from coherence accounts of truth. On the other hand, Rawls’s view fits with the claim by some contemporary theorists of knowledge that a coherence account of justification is distinguishable from a coherence account of truth, and defensible when so separated.

This separability is important to Rawls, even more so in his later work than in A Theory of Justice. Rawls never took a stand on the question of whether there are ‘truths’ about justice that correspond to a conception of justice that we justify through reflective equilibrium. In his early work, the method of reflective equilibrium suggested ways in which convergence might be achieved among those who began with disagreements about justice. By drawing attention to the many features of a comprehensive theory on which argument and evidence could be brought to bear, the method of wide reflective equilibrium held out promise that more convergence might result than if people had only considered judgments and principles to agree and disagree about. Convergence did not imply that truth was reached, but under some conditions, it could be taken as evidence for truth, just as it might be in nonnormative areas of inquiry.

Once Rawls took the ‘burdens of judgment’ and reasonable pluralism seriously, that is once he ‘politicized’ justice in his later work, it became much less plausible to talk about convergence on a shared wide equilibrium that might contain moral truth. Instead, even if we converged in an ‘overlapping consensus’ on a conception of justice, it would have to be justified from the perspective of distinct wide reflective equilibria. It became more important for Rawls to suggest how claims about justice could be ‘objective’ without presupposing moral truth. These developments in Rawls’s account thus appear to move him farther away from those who would seek to give a realist account of moral truth.

One further group of criticisms of reflective equilibrium derives largely from claims about human rationality. A starting point for this line of argument is the complaint that people who have different starting points as their initial set of beliefs, say with different degrees of credence given to their beliefs, may arrive at different reflective points of equilibrium. This possibility undercuts the suggestion that critical pressures alone can produce convergence. A more general form of this worry is that the model of reflection involved in reflective equilibrium, in which we are to produce coherence among all our beliefs, overemphasizes and idealizes human rationality. The suggestion is that we would be better off presupposing a more minimal form of rationality. A specific version of this complaint is that the method involves an information burden that cannot be met. Yet another version of this criticism is that we should allow for much less ‘rationalist’ forms of modification of our views, recognizing that ‘conversion’ experiences such as those involved in ‘paradigm shifts’ may affect any account of coherence.

A full defense of reflective equilibrium as a method would require a more developed response to many of these lines of criticism than exists in the literature.

5. Applications And Implications Of Reflective Equilibrium

Despite these criticisms, some philosophers have argued for a broader understanding of the relevance of the method of reflective equilibrium to practical ethics. In thinking about the course of right action in a particular case, we often appeal to reasons and principles that are notoriously general and lack the kind of specificity that make them suitable to govern the case at hand without committing us to implications we cannot accept in other contexts. This requires that we refine or specify the reasons and principles if we are to provide appropriate justifications for what we do and appropriate guidance for related cases. Philosophers who have focused attention on the importance of specification have drawn on the method of reflective equilibrium for their insights into the problem.

In practical ethics, especially bioethics, there has been a vigorous debate about methodology. Some argue that we must root all claims about specific cases in specific ethical theories, and that the hard work is showing how these theories apply to specific cases. Others argue that we may disagree about many aspects of general theory but still agree on principles, and that the hard work of practical ethics consists in fitting sometimes conflicting principles to particular cases. Still others argue that we must begin our philosophical work with detailed understanding of the texture and specificity of a case, avoiding the temptation to intrude general principles or theories into the analysis.

A grasp of the method of wide reflective equilibrium suggests a way around the exclusionary nature of this debate. Wide reflective equilibrium shows us the complex structure of justification in ethics and political philosophy, revealing many connections among our component beliefs. At the same time, there are many different types of ethical analysis and normative inquiry.

This suggests a more eclectic view of the debate about method. Work in ethics requires all levels of inquiry proposed by the disputants, not always all at once or in each case, but at some time or other. Sometimes it is true that we cannot resolve disputes about how to weigh conflicts among principles unless we bring more theoretical considerations to bear (these considerations need not involve comprehensive ethical theories). Sometimes we can agree on relevant principles and agree to disagree on other theoretical issues, still arriving at agreement about the rightness of particular policies or actions and their justification in light of relevant reasons and principles. Sometimes we must see what is distinctive about particular cases and revise or refine our reasons and principles before we can arrive at understanding of what to do. Finally, and of the greatest significance, the method of wide reflective equilibrium should make it clear that work in ethical theory cannot be divorced from work in practical ethics. We must test and revise theory in light of our considered judgments about moral practice. The condescending attitude of many who work in ethical theory toward work in practical ethics thus is incompatible with what wide reflective equilibrium establishes about the relationship between these areas of ethical inquiry.

The method of wide reflective equilibrium makes it plausible that all such ‘methods’ should be seen as appropriate to some tasks in ethics and are but parts of a more encompassing method.


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