Moral Justification and Reflective Equilibrium

6 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2008

See all articles by R. Edward Freeman

R. Edward Freeman

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Patricia H. Werhane

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Scott Sonenshein

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Bidhan L. Parmar

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Scott B. Sonenshein

Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

Abstract

This note explains reflective equilibrium, a process of moral reasoning whereby considered judgments about cases are reviewed and abstracted into principles. New cases either confirm the principles or lead to their revision. The note argues that reflective equilibrium is a good process for understanding how moral thinking ought to work.

Excerpt

UVA-E-0183

Rev. Feb. 12, 2009

MORAL JUSTIFICATION AND REFLECTIVE EQUILIBRIUM

The development of procedures for ethical decision-making and reasonable standards for behavior are part of every culture. The description of values, moral beliefs, and mores of a particular individual (or institution or society) is part of the way we define and describe them. Yet the task of justifying moral beliefs and the process of applying ethical standards to everyday decision making—a process that sometimes challenges those beliefs—can be exasperating.

In business, ethical justification is most difficult because economic goals often appear to override other considerations. Integrating ethical reasoning into managerial decision-making without setting aside economic considerations is neither easy nor risk-free. Yet ignoring ethical considerations in economic affairs is itself a normative decision that overlooks elementary facts: (1) Most economic decisions are choices where the decision-makers could have done otherwise; (2) Every such decision or action affects people, and an alternative action or inaction would affect them differently; and (3) Every decision or set of decisions is embedded in a belief system that presupposes some basic values.

To understand this process, it is helpful to view moral justification from three popular perspectives: deductivism, inductivism, and principlism. Deductivists rely on methods found in formal logic to deduce normative precepts from a pre-existing theory. General principles are contained within it that we can apply to concrete moral dilemmas. When the choice of rules is clear-cut, deductivism provides a simple method of ethical reasoning. For example, from Kant's “Never treat others as a mere means to your own ends,” we can deduce moral rules such as “Treat others with respect,” “Don't lie,” and so forth. These rules, however, don't allow for exception and are hard to use when we are dealing with the complexities of everyday life.

. . .

Keywords: ethical issues, process analysis' ethical theories, stakeholder management, ethical decision making, deductivism, inductivism, principlism

Suggested Citation

Freeman, R. Edward and Werhane, Patricia H. and Sonenshein, Scott and Parmar, Bidhan L. and Sonenshein, Scott B., Moral Justification and Reflective Equilibrium. Darden Case No. UVA-E-0183. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=908447

R. Edward Freeman (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
804-924-0935 (Phone)
804-924-6378 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/freeman.htm

Patricia H. Werhane

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
434-924-4840 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/werhane.htm

Scott Sonenshein

affiliation not provided to SSRN

No Address Available

Bidhan L. Parmar

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States

Scott B. Sonenshein

Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan ( email )

701 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI MI 48109
United States

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