Reflective Equilibrium and Archimedean Points

  • Norman Daniels


In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls defines a hypothetical contract situation and argues rational people will agree on reflection it is fair to contractors. He solves the rational choice problem it poses by deriving two lexically-ordered principles of justice and suggests the derivation justifies the principles.1 Its soundness aside, just what justificatory force does such a derivation have?


Moral Judgment Procedural Justice Moral Theory Reflective Equilibrium Wide Reflective Equilibrium 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1971), pp. 17, 21, 577–87.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Cf. R. M. Hare, ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’, Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1973): 144–55, 241–51;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. reprinted in Norman Daniels (ed.), Reading Rawls, (New York: Basic, 1975), esp. pp. 82ff. Hare cites (p. 84) the Rawls passages quoted above (cf. n.2 and n.3 supra).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    We are not bound to principles to which we did not actually agree. Nor, merely because we would have agreed to them had we agreed to make the contract (they would have been in our antecedent interest) must we now accept them (they may not be in our actual interest). Cf. Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Original Position’, University of Chicago Law Review 40 (1973): 500–33; reprinted in Daniels, Reading Rawls, pp. 16–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 7.
    T. M. Scanlon ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 121 (1973): 1010–69; reprinted in part in Daniels, Reading Rawls, pp. 169–205, cf. p. 178; Scanlon’s view has important similarities to mine.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 9.
    John Rawls, ‘Reply to Alexander and Musgrave’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 88 (1974): 637CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    For example, the person is calm and has adequate information about the cases being judged. Considered moral judgments may be of any level of generality, a shift from earlier characterizations. Cf. Rawls, ‘The Independence of Moral Theory’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 48 (1974–75): 8.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    The distinction between narrow and wide reflective equilibria is implicit in TJ, p. 49, and explicit in ‘The Independence of Moral Theory’, p. 8. Rawls has compared the search for moral principles in reflective equilibrium to the search for a grammar in descriptive syntactics: each captures a relevant ‘sense’ or competence. But the analogy at best holds for narrow, not wide equilibria; cf. my ‘Some Methods of Ethics and Linguistics’, Philosophical Studies, 37 (1980): 21–36. More importantly, narrow equilibrium is particularly ill-suited as a basis for a justificational argument: its elementary coherence constraints provide inadequate pressure to revise considered moral judgments which have no special epistemological status and are open to many charges about bias, historical accident, and ideology. Cf. Rawls, TJ, p. 49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    My formulation is not adequate as it stands since there will even be trivial truth-functional counterexamples to it unless some specification of ‘interesting’ and ‘non-trivial’ is given. I also say nothing about how to measure the scope of a theory. The problem is a standing one in philosophy of science (cf., Michael Friedman’s attempt to handle the related question of unifying theories in ‘Explanation and Scientific Understanding’, Journal of Philosophy 71 (1974): 5–14, esp. 15ff.). I assume this difficulty can be overcome, though doing so might require dropping the loose talk about theories. I am indebted to George Smith for helpful discussion of this point.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 22.
    Rawls, ‘A Kantian Conception of Equality’, Cambridge Review (February, 1975): 94. The wording also appears in condition (4) of well-ordered societies; see above.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Cf. Rawls, ‘A Kantian Conception of Equality’, p. 95; also, John Rawls, ‘The Basic Structure as Subject’, American Philosophical Quarterly 14, (1977): 160.Google Scholar
  12. 44.
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) pp. 204ff.Google Scholar
  13. 50.
    Rawls, ‘Reply to Alexander and Musgrave’, p. 637; cf. G. E. Pence, ‘Fair Contracts and Beautiful Intuitions’, in Kai Nielsen and Roger Shiner (eds.), Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary vol. 3 (Guelph: Canadian Association for Publishing in Philosophy; 1977): 143.Google Scholar
  14. 51.
    Cf. Derek Parfit, ‘Later Selves and Moral Principles’, in Alan Montefiore (ed.), Philosophy and Personal Relations, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), esp. pp. 149–60; and Rawls, ‘Independence of Moral Theory’, pp. 17ff; and my ‘Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons’.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Norman Daniels

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