Reflective Equilibrium

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by Juha Räikkä

The method of wide reflective equilibrium (WRE) is a coherence method of justification in ethics. WRE was first introduced by John Rawls in his “The Independence of Moral Theory” (1975; cf. Rawls 1972, 48-51), and one of WRE’s strongest proponents has been another American philosopher Norman Daniels. As Daniels (1996, 22) describes WRE, it is a method which attempts to produce coherence in an ordered triple of sets of beliefs held by a particular person, namely (a) a set  of considered moral judgments, (b) a set of moral principles, and (c) a set of relevant (scientific and philosophical) background theories.

When using WRE, a person begins by collecting moral judgments (such as “abortion should be allowed”) which she finds intuitively plausible. Then she proposes alternative sets of moral principles (such as “killing human beings is wrong”) that have varying degree of fit with the moral judgments. Finally, she seeks support for those moral judgments and moral principles from background theories (such as “a fetus is not a human being”) that are, in her view, acceptable. As Daniels writes, we can imagine the agent working back and forth, making adjustments to her considered moral judgments, her moral principles and her background theories. Finally, she arrives at an equilibrium point that consists of the ordered triple (a), (b) and (c). Moral judgments included in this point are taken to be justified. Reaching such a  point may be difficult; as Rawls puts it, achieving it is an ideal situation.

One may try to use WRE collectively, and in a sense, daily moral discussions are in fact guided by WRE (even if participants of such discussions have rarely heard about the method). When person S1 thinks that she is justified in accepting certain moral judgment a1, person S2 may point out that a1 is not consistent with the moral principle b1, which must be attractive also from S1’s point of view. This is how normative and ethical discussions normally proceed. However, it is important to keep in mind that WRE is a normative method – it tells how an ethical evaluation should proceed – and not merely a decription of actual discussions. (Cf. Persson 2000, 29.) 

WRE has raised many critical responses. For instance, critics have claimed that WRE is really a form of moral intuitionism. According to this line of criticism, WRE implies that a person is justified in believing whatever she happens to believe, if she has a strong enough “intuition” that this or that is so (for instance, that “abortion should be allowed”). This argument, however, seems unfounded. Intuitionist theories are usually foundationalist in a sense that “intuitions” or at least some of them are thought to be somehow incorrigible or basic or self-warranting. But WRE allows corrections of moral judgments: none of them are thought to be “basic”, whatever the strenght of one’s intuition. (For a discussion, see e.g. Ebertz 1993.)

Is WRE anything else than a clever way to systematize our moral judgments? According to the critics it is not, but defenders have argued that WRE is much more than that. In their view, background theories (c) give independent support to moral judgments and principles, and background theories may be justified independently of the fact that they cohere with attractive moral judgments and principles. The method of narrow reflective equilibrium (NRE) seeks coherence only between moral judgments and moral principles. But WRE is wider than NRE in that it takes background theories into account.

An obvious problem with WRE seems to be that the considered moral judgments (a) are not initially credible. Instead, they are a result of “accidents”. Even sincerely believed and carefully formulated moral judgments may be biased by self-interest, self-deception, and cultural and historical influences (cf. Daniels 1996, 30; Räikkä 1996). This is problematic, since the ordered triple (a), (b) and (c) is partly justified by referring to the considered moral judgments. This problem is not the general problem of all coherence accounts of justification, but a particularly serious problem faced by WRE. (For a discussion, see e.g. DePaul 1987.) 

According to Daniels (1996, 31), however, the “no credibility” objection is merely a burden-of-proof  argument. He writes that it is “plausible to think that only the development of acceptable moral theory in wide reflective equilibrium will enable us to determine what kind of ‘fact’, if any, is involved in a considered moral judgment”. While we have to confess that some answer to the question about the reliability of moral judgments is required, there is no reason to think that there is no such answer. Hence we are justified in using WRE and trusting in its results.

Does WRE open doors to moral relativism? Is it not likely that eventually there will be not only one equilibrium point shared by all or most people, but various different equilibrium points? If so, we will also have different answers to ethical questions (such as “should abortion be allowed?”) all of which will be equally justified (cf. Agostino 1988). This worry was raised already by Rawls, and there is no easy way to answer it. We should keep in mind, however, that seeking WRE may be an endless process, and we can always challenge each other’s beliefs of establishing such an equilibrium point. Another important issue is that WRE may assist in producing greater moral agreement, since the method uses background theories and may thus render problems more tractable. (See also van der Burg and van Willigenburg 1998.) 

WRE is not explicitly connected to particular views on moral ontology or the nature of moral truths. A proponent of WRE may think that it will lead us to moral truths or closer to moral truths, if there are any. But the constraints WRE puts on the acceptability of moral judgments are coherence constraints, which are not related to claims of truth as such. (See also Holmgren 1987.)

WRE has been widely applied in practical ethics and social philosophy. Too often these applications have been based on the false hope that the explicit use of WRE adds something important to the arguments that are presented in the discussion in any case. It does not, although it may be pleasant and valuable to be aware of the method one is using.


van der Burg, Wibren and van Willigenburg, Theo, (Eds.), Reflective Equilibrium (Kluwer, Dordrecht 1998).

D’Agostino, Fred, “Relativism and Reflective Equilibrium”, The Monist 71 (1988), 420-436. 

Daniels, Norman, Justice and Justification (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996).

DePaul, Michael, “Two Conceptions of Coherence Methods in Ethics”, Mind 96 (1987), 463-481.

Ebertz, Roger P., “Is Reflective Equilibrium a Coherentist Model?”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 23 (1987), 193-214.

Holmgren, Margaret, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Objective Moral Truth”, Metaphilosophy 18 (1987), 108-124.

Petersson, Bo (Ed.), Applied Ethics and Reflective Equilibrium (Centre for Applied Ethics, Linköping 2000).

Räikkä, Juha, “Are There Alternative Methods in Ethics?”, Grazer Philosophische Studien 52 (1996), 173-189.

Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1972).
Rawls, John, “The Independence of Moral Theory” (1975). Reprinted in John Rawls, Collected Papers (Harvard University Press, Cambrifge 1999), 286-302.

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