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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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