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Rawls and subject 2

March 7, 2017
  • 2. Reflective equilibrium

1.) Outline

Although the author will only introduce the formal notion of “reflective equilibrium” with the 1971 publication of A Theory of Justice, its broad features are already recognizable in the 1951 publication of “Outline for a Decision Procedure for Ethics”[1]. In order to appreciate the development of this justificatory notion, it will first prove necessary to lay out those features presented in the initial treatment and amended two decades later. For these features provide the careful reader with clues to certain of the motivations which will lead Rawls to formulate the representational device of the original position in the way that he does.

Rawls open his text with a question of high theoretico-practical significance. Namely, the author inquires:

Does there exist a reasonable decision procedure which is sufficiently strong, at least in some cases, to determine the manner in which competing interests should be adjudicated, and, in instances of conflict, one interest given preference over another; and, further, can the existence of this procedure, as well as its reasonableness, be established by rational methods of inquiry?[2]

Even at this early stage, the article’s guiding question seems continuous with the kinds of theoretico-practical questions which the author shall address throughout his career. Yet it is important to acknowledge that Rawls’ goals remain, at this time, more limited in scope. If he answers both questions in the affirmative, he will leave aside, for the time being, “the problem of how to make [a reasonable method] psychologically effective in the settling of disputes” or, in other words, what he will later term the problem of stability[3]. Instead, the author concentrates on the problem of objectivity and maintains an analogy between inductive logic and ethics. For, framed in the terms of inductive logic, ethics aims at “a reasonable method for validating and invalidating given or proposed moral rules and those decisions made on the basis of them”[4].

Articulated more forcefully, those engaged in ethical inquiry attempt “to find reasonable principles which, when we are given a proposed line of conduct and the situation in which it is to be carried out and the relevant interests which it effects, will enable us to determine whether or not we ought to carry it out and hold it to be just or right”[5]. Put more simply, Rawls seeks a method on which, given certain inputs of action, situation and interests, the person inquiring could work out what weight to give to all relevant considerations. In what might such a method consist and by what criteria would one recognize it?

With this in mind, the author turns his attention to his search for reasonable principles and considers by what marks one might recognize them. For this, we can summarize his process as follows: a.) identify the criteria appropriate for sound moral judgments (2.3-2.5); b.) identify the criteria appropriate for principles capable of explaining those judgments (3.1-3.6); c.) devise tests to check for coherence between principles and judgments (4.2-4.4); d.) formulate a problem of justice (5.1-5.4); e.) formulate principles of justice which explain our considered judgments (5.5); f.) apply the principles stated in e.) and checked by tests in c.) to the problem of justice illustrated in d.) (6.1-6.3). Of these six steps, only the first three will prove of immediate use in clarifying reflective equilibrium as a justificatory procedure; the last three will nonetheless shed further light on developments in TJ[6].

[1] Rawls, J., ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, Philosophical Review, 60(2): pp. 177–97, 1951; reprinted in CP, pp. 1–19.

[2] CP, p. 1.

[3] Idem.

[4] Idem.

[5] CP, p. 2.

[6] See section 3 below.

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