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Reflective Equilibrium: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Are your moral beliefs consistent across different issues? Can you justify why you believe certain things? In this lesson we'll talk about the philosophical concept of reflective equilibrium, which is a deliberative process whereby we evaluate our moral beliefs.

Reflective Equilibrium

What kind of moral beliefs do we hold? What kind of moral judgements do we make about particular situations or issues? Are our moral beliefs the same across a number of similar issues? How do we search for a common thread among our moral beliefs? In philosophy, the concept of reflective equilibrium refers to a process by which we try to figure out how we know if something is morally right or not and whether our beliefs about what is moral are consistent.

We might think that we can't really debate moral issues. We think we know what is right or wrong. But philosophers have questioned this. While there might be some situations where it's fairly clear what is and isn't right, it's often more complicated than that. Reflective equilibrium is kind of like a methodological approach to moral reasoning and it requires us to evaluate our system of beliefs to decide whether or not we can justify them. If we have conflicting beliefs, this leaves us in a state of reflective disequilibrium, which we will try to reconcile. (It might be useful here to remember that the word 'equilibrium' means balance). We can assess, and if needed, reevaluate some of our beliefs about certain moral convictions or judgements. Before we talk about some examples, let's talk a little bit more about the theory of reflective equilibrium.

Theory of Reflective Equilibrium

One of the earliest iterations of reflective equilibrium comes from the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls wrote extensively about issues of justice and fairness. He wanted to understand how we justify our different moral principles. Rawls thought that people had a sort of moral intuition, kind of like an internal belief about whether something is right or wrong. For Rawls, the goal of moral philosophy is to try and guarantee fairness for everyone as much as possible. We should try and make moral decisions that are the best for as many people as possible. If we're rational actors, then we'll make our choices based on what's good for the greatest number of people.

In order to try and achieve reflective equilibrium, we need to identify what Rawls called considered judgements. These are judgements about moral beliefs that we hold that are open to change and to new info. We need principles that explain and justify these judgements that we make about situations. If we can't find any, we have some choices. We can try and modify principles to make them fit or we can modify our original judgement. Rawls saw two different kinds of reflective equilibrium. First, we might see narrow reflective equilibrium, which happens when we're really only considering our original moral judgement. Narrow reflective equilibrium is good at finding principles that support moral judgements we're really committed to but it has a harder time really justifying this belief. Wide reflective equilibrium means that we expand beyond our original moral considerations. We need to consider alternatives and other kinds of moral judgements. This can help us see potential pitfalls in our original moral judgements.

Rawls thought that people are seeking a true or genuine moral theory of justice. Or, put another way, a set of moral claims that we totally accept. If we're totally happy with principles we identify and the moral judgements that we make based on them, then we've come to reflective equilibrium. But some have questioned whether or not it's possible to really achieve total reflective equilibrium. In other words, can we really alleviate all of the contradictions that might come up among our different beliefs? We might not be able to find one true moral stance on all issues. Let's explore this a little bit further by taking an example.

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