The Methodological Irrelevance of Reflective Equilibrium

In Chris Daly (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophical Methods. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 652-674 (2015)
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John Rawls’ method of reflective equilibrium is the most influential methodology in contemporary ethics.This paper argues that this influence is undeserved, for two reasons. First, reflective equilibrium fails to accomplish two tasks that give us reason to care about methodology. On the one hand, it fails to explain how (or whether) moral knowledge is possible.This is because the method is explicitly oriented towards the distinct (and less interesting) task of characterizing our moral sensibilities. On the other hand, the method fails to provide an informative way of adjudicating central methodological debates in ethics. Second, where Rawls’ method –and the background methodology he uses to motivate it –do have substance, that substance is implausible. The role of dispositions in the method entails that it endorses obviously irrational inferences. Further, the method makes substantively implausible distinctions between the dispositions that are allowed to play a methodological role. Rawls' background methodology appeals to the idea of a psychology in ‘wide reflective equilibrium’. However, both formal and empirical path-dependence considerations strongly suggest that there is nothing even minimally determinate that is someone’s psychology in ‘wide reflective equilibrium’. I close by exploring salient attempts to salvage the spirit of reflective equilibrium by abandoning elements of Rawls’ approach. I argue that none of these attempts succeed. I conclude that appeal to the method of reflective equilibrium is not a helpful means of addressing pressing methodological questions in ethics. In a slogan, reflective equilibrium is methodologically irrelevant.

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Tristram McPherson
Ohio State University


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