Rawls' Concept of Reflective Equilibrium and its Original Function in 'A Theory of Justice'

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center


Washington University Jurisprudence Review, Vol. 3, p. 1, 2010
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-103

John Rawls’ concept of reflective equilibrium has been the subject of widespread interest and debate. Its use in normative ethics has been criticized by many moral and legal theorists and resourcefully defended by others. Rawls’ original concept derived from Nelson Goodman’s account of how to justify principles of inductive inference. As such, reflective equilibrium has been thought to support a link between ethics and empirical science, and thus to shed light on the nature of moral truth, justification, and objectivity. Reflective equilibrium also plays a significant role in the analogy Rawls draws between moral theory and linguistics. The linguistic analogy has been an object of controversy in its own right and has led to further speculation about whether Rawls considers moral theory to be an empirical discipline - a branch of psychology - and if so, whether its claims to normative authority can be maintained.

In this invited essay for the Washington University Jurisprudence Review, I first discuss Rawls’ various accounts of reflective equilibrium in his early writings, paying particularly close attention to the different versions of the concept described in Sections 4 and 9 of A Theory of Justice (1971) and to the distinction Rawls draws between wide and narrow reflective equilibrium in “The Independence of Moral Theory” (1975). I then argue that critics such as Richard Brandt, R.M. Hare, and Peter Singer are mistaken to claim that reflective equilibrium is too empirical or insufficiently normative. In addition, I examine Norman Daniels’ influential interpretation of reflective equilibrium, arguing that on close analysis Daniels does not defend Rawls’ original concept as much as change the topic. The unfortunate result is to divert the attention of moral and legal theorists away from the plausible naturalistic moral psychology embedded in A Theory of Justice.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 31

Keywords: reflective equilibrium, legal theory, moral theory, law and psychology

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K30

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Date posted: July 21, 2011 ; Last revised: July 27, 2011

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Rawls' Concept of Reflective Equilibrium and its Original Function in 'A Theory of Justice' (2010). Washington University Jurisprudence Review, Vol. 3, p. 1, 2010; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-103. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1890670

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John Mikhail (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
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Washington, DC 20001
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