What is Wrong with Reflective Equilibria?

  • D. W. Haslett


One aspect of John Rawls’ moral philosophy, in particular, seems to be surviving the critical onslaught that greeted the publication of A Theory of Justice: his approach to moral justification, an approach we may refer to as ‘reflective equilibrium’ methodology.1 It is often said that, if nothing else, Rawls has at least succeeded in spelling out for us the way in which the justification of moral principles does, and ought to proceed.2 This is not to say that reflective equilibrium methodology has escaped criticism; indeed it has not.3 Much of this criticism has centred upon the apparent circularity inherent in this methodology. But supporters have been quick to respond. They claim that most of these criticisms are off target; most of these criticisms, they say, focus merely upon ‘narrow’ reflective equilibrium methodology, whereas it is really ‘wide’ reflective equilibrium methodology that Rawls is advocating. And, although this methodology, its proponents will admit, is, to some degree, circular, this circularity, they claim, is the sort that is unobjectionable. So, in spite of the criticisms to which it has been subjected, reflective equilibrium methodology continues to be widely regarded as the most promising and sophisticated approach to moral justification yet. I want to argue here that on the contrary, this approach to moral justification is seriously mistaken.


Moral Judgement Scientific Theory Moral Philosophy Background Theory Scientific Methodology 
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  1. 1.
    For Rawls’ characterization of this method, see A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 19–21 and 46–53.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sympathetic treatment of this methodology is found, for example, in Joel Feinberg, ‘Justice, Fairness and Rationality’, Yale Law Review 81 (1972);Google Scholar
  3. Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Original Position’, University of Chicago Law Review 40, (1973), reprinted in Reading Rawls, Norman Daniels (ed.) (New York, 1976);Google Scholar
  4. C. F. Delaney, ‘Rawls on Method’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy: Supplementary Volume III (1976);Google Scholar
  5. Stuart Hampshire, Two Theories of Morality (Oxford, 1977);Google Scholar
  6. Norman Daniels, ‘Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics’, The Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979);Google Scholar
  7. Jane English, ‘Ethics and science’, Proceedings of the XVI International Congress of Philosophy (1980);Google Scholar
  8. Kai Nielsen, ‘Considered Judgments again’, Human Studies 5 (1982); ‘On Needing Moral Theory’, Metaphilosophy (1982); and Equality and Liberty (Totawa, N. J. , 1985).Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    Among these criticisms are those found in R. M. Hare, ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’, Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1973), reprinted in Reading Rawls;Google Scholar
  10. Peter Singer, ‘Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium’, Monist 58 (1974);Google Scholar
  11. David Lyons, ‘Nature of Soundness of the Contract and Coherence Arguments’, in Reading Rawls; R. B. Brandt, A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford, 1979;Google Scholar
  12. Daniel Little, ‘Reflective Equilibrium and Justification’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 22, (1984.Google Scholar
  13. 5.
    The difference between narrow and wide reflective equilibria is implicit in TJ, p. 49; and is explicit in John Rawls, ‘The Independence of Moral Theory’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 47, (1974/75), p. 8.Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    Norman Daniels, ‘Some Methods of Ethics and Linguistics’, Philosophical Studies 37, (1980).Google Scholar
  15. 8.
    Daniels, op. cit. (note 2). See also op. cit. (note 6); and Norman Daniels, ‘Reflective Equilibrium and Archimedean Points’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10 (1980).Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    For an argument in support of this claim about there being no reality ‘out there’ parallel to the reality that science investigates, see J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, 1977), pp. 15–49.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • D. W. Haslett

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