Volume 41, Issue 1, Winter 2017
Three Remarks on “Reflective Equilibrium“
On the Use and Misuse of Rawls’ Balancing Concept in Contemporary Ethics
John Rawls’ “reflective equilibrium” ranges amongst the most popular conceptions in contemporary ethics when it comes to the basic methodological question of how to justify and trade off different normative positions and attitudes. Even where Rawls’ specific contractualist account is not adhered to, “reflective equilibrium” is readily adopted as the guiding idea of coherentist approaches, seeking moral justification not in a purely deductive or inductive manner, but in some balancing procedure that will eventually procure a stable adjustment of relevant doctrines and standpoints. However, it appears that the widespread use of this idea has led to some considerable deviations from its meaning within Rawls’ original framework and to a critical loss of conceptual cogency as an ethico-hermeneutical tool. This contribution identifies three kinds of “balancing” constellations that are frequently, but inadequately brought forth under the heading of Rawlsian “reflective equilibrium”: (a) balancing theoretical accounts against intuitive convictions; (b) balancing general principles against particular judgements; (c) balancing opposite ethical conceptions or divergent moral statements, respectively. It is argued that each of these applications departs from Rawls’ original construction of “reflective equilibrium” and also deprives the idea of its reliability in clarifying and weighing moral stances.