The use of reflective equilibrium

Reflective Equilibrium in Moral Systems

For a long time, the application of reflective equilibrium in building moral systems has resulted in many debates. Rawls (1971) attempted to establish a standard definition of reflective equilibrium and how it applied in human social circles. In this formulation, he maintained that social organizations with principles that correspond to the convictions of the ideal justice system do not require reflective equilibrium. There is, however, an option if there are differences between the institution's values and an individual's notion of fairness. There are two options: altering the individual's current judgment or changing the account of the starting situation. Given that in most scenarios, it is not in power of the individual to change the dominant ideologies, the most probable occurrence will be the adjustment of the prevalent mental judgment of the individual. This scenario necessitates an individual to go back and forth between altering the conditions of predominant circumstances and modifying the view to conform to the set principles. Eventually, there is a state of balance between the reasonable conditions and principles that are in such person’s sense of justice. With the continuous progression of this dynamic state, a person comes to a reflective equilibrium. Notably, it is assumed that every human being has a sense of justice, which is regarded as moral principles that form judgments. The existence of a difference in our philosophies gives rise to a conflict necessitating a change of perception of the moral tenets. The adjustment of dogmas system of an individual to attain a state of no conflict is what each human being aims. Rawls (1971) suggested that reflective equilibrium could be a classical method of moral principles. Through examining various studies and arguments of philosophers, it is evident that reflective equilibrium is not an accurate method of forming moral beliefs.

The Unsustainability of Reflective Equilibrium

Reflective equilibrium is not a good way of forming moral beliefs since it aims at altering and bringing a person to a state of stability and coherence and not necessarily form new beliefs. That suggestion reveals that an individual has already developed dispositions over time that is inculcated in his or her way of life only for the dispositions to clash somewhere necessitating change. However, it is still possible to form a temporary belief system following reflective equilibrium. In such occurrences, the moral reasoning may be unsustainable since changes are inevitable and a new situation may arise requiring alteration as well. For example, one may be in a workplace with organizational principles that are incongruent with person’s moral beliefs requiring them to make alterations. Afterwards, they may shift the workstation to a new area where the organizational principles and philosophies are in line with the initial principles that were changed in the previous workstation. Such shifts would mean an adjustment for survival and excellence in the new workplace, and eventually, the person will change to suit the new area since it may not be within his or power to change the moral principles. As such, moral dogmas developed in the process of reflective equilibrium are unsustainable and may not be embedded in the personality of an individual. Thus, reflective equilibrium is an isolated case that cannot be generalized as a rule used by individuals to form moral beliefs.

The Influence of Social Constructs

Additionally, reflective equilibrium is not a good way of developing views since human beings are social creatures and their belief systems are formed by the society and not just individuals’ mental processes. Millgram (2015) suggests that reflective equilibrium systematizes what human beings already know and think and does not result in any new knowledge or opinions. Additionally, reflective equilibrium is not characterized by intuitions and does not inculcate the fact that instincts are the credible commitments that a person has (Brun, 2014). Failure to include sixth sense in any substantial sense becomes problematic since the intuitions are developed in social context and form the basis of an individual’s belief system as suggested by Kelly & McGrath (2010). For reflective equilibrium to assist in the formation of moral beliefs, it must acknowledge the existence of intuition and the value of social context. Researchers reiterate that morality is a social construct rather than an individual’s formation. If these proposed changes were guaranteed to happen, then conformities would be evident in social institutions and the society. There would be no occurrence of conduct that is morally wrong and unacceptable. This theory cannot explain why individuals who have a certain moral inclination like radicalization among the Muslims do not change when they move to places where such radicalization is not appreciated. For instance, if adjustments happen to attain reflective equilibrium, such individuals would move from Middle Eastern nations to the United States and change their mental inclination that would be reflected in their conduct. However, since the person might have grown up in a place where radicalization in any form is appreciated and is the most valuable commitment they hold, they remain adamant. As such, they choose to live in discrepancy with the systems of the culture and principles of US. To some of the extremists, nothing can result in a change of the moral belief including threats like death or imprisonment. In such occurrences of extremism, reflective equilibrium becomes an incapable approach to morality.

Limited Applicability in a Global Context

Reflective equilibrium fails to appreciate the fact that its application could only work well in local set up but not in a global set up. The reason is that human situations are dissimilar and people respond to situations in diverse ways. For instance, when some individuals realize incongruence with principles in a particular case, they will maintain their point of view and defend what they know at any cost. On the other hand, others, because they dislike conflict and are not firm on whatever the moral dogmas result, will make adjustments. As such, this theory cannot be a good way of forming moral beliefs as it leaves out a considerable number of individuals. Reflective equilibrium cannot be used to form moral opinions, unless in a conservative set up when the prevailing circumstances are the same and potential outcomes almost known. However, with the dynamic society that people dwell and the increased globalization, reflective equilibrium becomes a limiting approach to develop moral principles.

The Challenges of Changing Preconceived Notions

Finally, reflective equilibrium is not an ideal method of establishing moral beliefs because its existence is preceded by the occurrence of a preconceived notion. A belief system is developed through knowledge and facts imparted to an individual over a prolonged period. For this judgment to be substantial knowledge and acceptance the facts through a rigorous process over time is essential. Changing this treasured knowledge would only happen when the proposed means seems to offer a higher payoff than the initial. However, people may be unwilling to relinquish prevailing knowledge for something unknown to them, and the outcome may be unpredictable. As such, this method may not yield many benefits as the oscillations back and forth may result in instability and decisiveness mainly if the earlier judgment existed for a long time. Notably, when a person is exposed to certain knowledge and belief system and then meets a situation that mounts pressure on him or her to change, there is a possibility of developing rebellious conduct instead of making necessary adjustments (Penfield 2015). The personal pursuit of safeguarding upheld principles that are well-known and beliefs may supersede the possible alternatives of change and modifications.


In conclusion, reflective equilibrium is not an excellent way of developing moral beliefs. Sometimes it is too complicated and fails to appreciate the role of social constructs in developing morality and the importance of intuition in its full scope in moral beliefs. Additionally, it may be a workable method in a local set up but difficult in the rising occurrences of globalization and increased interactions worldwide. Furthermore, the application of reflective equilibrium becomes essential in a situation where the person has already preconceived notions and principles that are liable to change rather than formation of new ones. As such, it is inaccurate to suggest that reflective equilibrium is an ideal way of forming moral opinions or ethics. Such beliefs and ethics, if they are worthwhile, ought to be developed from an early age so that to become the basis of looking at issues and reduce the chances of changing them when faced with a situation. Additionally, it does not assure that when a person experiences a circumstances that are in conflict with their moral views, any changes will follow. There are scenarios where neither the principles nor the moral opinions will change. This theory of reflective equilibrium fails to offer solutions in such instances, rendering it a less suitable method for the development of ethical principles.


Brun, G. (2014). Reflective equilibrium without intuitions? Ethical theory and moral practice, 17(2), 237-252.

Millgram, E. (2015). The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. Oxford University Press.

Kelly, T., & McGrath, S. (2010). Is reflective equilibrium enough? Philosophical Perspectives, 24(1), 325-359.

Penfield, W. (2015). The mystery of the mind: a critical study of consciousness and the human brain. Princeton University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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