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‘Narrow reflective equilibrium is unconvincing, while wide
reflective equilibrium is impossible.’ Discuss.



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In this essay I will show that narrow reflective equilibrium
(NRE) is convincing yet philosophically uninteresting and that wide reflective
equilibrium (WRE), in both its coherentist and foundationalist forms, is
impossible to implement unproblematically. I will do this by;

Explaining Reflective Equilibrium (RE) in both its
wide and narrow variants.

Detailing how NRE can describe our beliefs but
cannot do anything beyond this rendering it philosophically uninteresting and why
WRE in both its foundationalist and coherentist forms is impossible to implement
unproblematically. Those reasons being that the foundationalist view is a
misinterpretation of WRE which also relies upon non-existent basic moral
beliefs and that the coherentist view is indeterminate in terms of offering us
guidance on how to reform our incoherent beliefs, introducing bias into the
method. The coherentist view also suffers from an epistemic “gap” in that we
can never know if we have included enough information or whether the background
theories we have included and excluded are relevant. It is also not clear if
coherence alone can act as a form of justification.

Countering the potential objection that WRE was
always intended as a guiding ideal and therefore escapes the objection that it
cannot be used as a form of justification by showing how this approach may
entrench bias and create a false moral equivalence between equally coherent

Summarising my arguments.


An Overview of RE

RE is a methodology by which we attempt to make our moral
beliefs more coherent either for clarificatory or justificatory reasons. (Daniels,
There are three stages to RE;

 Firstly, one
must identify one’s key moral principles which underlie their moral belief.
These principles being mostly specific in nature. For example, I think that
this specific action is immoral as opposed to a general principle that this
type of action is immoral.

Secondly, one must produce a set of considered
judgements about one’s initial moral principles which both explains and
systematises them.

Thirdly, if one’s moral principles and
considered judgements conflict then one must revise, add to and remove from
their sets of considered judgments and moral principles until they cohere with
each other. Once this has been achieved then one has reached equilibrium between
one’s principles and considered judgments, making their moral belief internally
coherent. (Cath, 2016, p. 214)

There are two important points of
note, first what does it mean for a judgement to be “considered” and second RE’s
guiding nature. For a judgement to be “considered” the agent making it must be
aware of all the available facts, able to concentrate on said facts and not
stand to profit or lose out on the decision made. (Scanlon,
2003, p. 143)
Also, RE is mostly interpreted as a guiding ideal rather than an achievable
reality. It would most likely be impossible to make all of one’s moral beliefs
completely coherent. Instead it should be an epistemic ideal worth striving for
in which RE is constantly reapplied to our beliefs to make them as coherent as
possible. (Cath, 2016, p. 215) Once this process
has been applied enough times then eventually our moral beliefs should be
internally coherent and fully capture what we believe (or what we should



There are two variations of RE. NRE is essentially the
variation that I have just described in which we make our considered judgements
and moral principles cohere with each other. This attempt at coherence is used
to describe the nature of our own individual beliefs about morality. By
continuously refining our own moral intuitions and considered judgements we can
explicate and make coherent their features and hopefully come to understand the
structures of our moral beliefs. (Daniels, 2016)

WRE also attempts to make our moral principles and
considered judgements cohere but then in addition to this aligns them with a
third set. This third set consists of background theories which are relevant to
the previous two sets but may also extend beyond the target domain and provide
explanations for entirely separate phenomena. (Cath, 2016, p. 218) This could include,
but is not limited to, one’s beliefs about metaphysics, psychology and
rationality etc. One must also not limit oneself purely to their own moral principles,
but also include the moral principles of others as well. The impetus behind
this attempt to align everyone’s moral principles and relevant background
theories is so that WRE can act as a form of justification. By attempting to be
reflective on as much relevant information from as many persons as possible it
is thought that this will increase the quality of our considered judgements.
The reasoning for this being that an ignorance of relevant facts will hinder
your ability to judge accurately. The addition of others’ moral principles also
helps to screen out personal bias which may blind you to morally relevant
considerations. Once this additional information has been factored into the
method then our considered judgments and the moral beliefs they underpin can tentatively
considered to be true. (Scanlon, 2003, pp. 144-145)


Interpretive Issue: Coherentist or

The most prominent interpretive issue surrounding WRE is whether
it is a coherentist or foundationalist method of justification. I shall now
depict these below.


Coherentist WRE

Advocates of Coherentist WRE claim that the moral beliefs
which go through WRE can be considered true through their coherence. A moral
belief being constituted of a coherent system of moral principles, considered
judgements and background theories is a sufficient condition and, in some
interpretations, a necessary condition for it to be true. Why some believe that
this makes a moral belief more likely to be true is that this coherence
minimises the conflict of the internal parts of one’s beliefs which therefore
maximises their plausibility. (Cath, 2016, p. 216)


Foundationalist WRE

Advocates of Foundationalist WRE tell us that there are
basic beliefs, these being beliefs which cannot be reduced to smaller
subsidiary beliefs and are self-evidently true, that can be used to provide a justification
for our non-basic beliefs. (Cath, 2016, pp. 218-20) To put this in
context of the method, for WRE to be foundationalist it would mean that some,
if not all, of the moral principles that you reflect on are already justified
to some degree. One then attempts to align these self-evident principles with
their considered judgements and relevant background theories to provide a
justification for one’s non-basic moral beliefs.


2.0 Why NRE is Plausible yet Uninteresting and WRE is Impossible

I believe that NRE is plausible yet philosophically
uninteresting and that WRE is impossible to implement unproblematically due to
numerous internal flaws. While NRE does have the ability to help describe our
individual moral beliefs it cannot do much beyond this and therefore is uninteresting.
WRE on the other hand is impossible in both its coherentist and foundationalist
forms. The foundationalist form fails as it appears to be an incorrect
interpretation of WRE on its original Rawlsian account and because there appear
to be no “basic” moral beliefs. There are three reasons why the coherentist
form of WRE fails. Firstly, it offers no guidance on what to remove or modify
when a moral intuition, considered judgment and background belief clash. This
means that the most likely components to be jettisoned or modified are those
which clash with our own most treasured moral beliefs, as they form the core of
our identity. This method will then just entrench our existing beliefs
regardless of truth value. Secondly, there will always be an epistemic gap
within the method as you can never know whether you have gathered enough
information or the relevancy of the background theories which you have included
and excluded. Finally, it is unclear that a belief’s coherence necessitates truth
or even lends much credence to it.


NRE is Plausible but Philosophically Uninteresting

I believe that NRE is an effective method of helping us to
understand and make coherent our own moral beliefs but is philosophically
uninteresting as it cannot do much else.

NRE is an effective method in helping us to understand our individual
moral beliefs. By comparing our own moral principles and considered judgements
we can better align them, making our moral beliefs more coherent. We can then
better explicate the features of, and understand, our own moral commitments also
enabling us to better explain them to others. We can also come to know which of
our moral principles constitute our core values. When our moral principles and
considered judgements clash irreconcilably we must jettison or modify one of
them. Through this we can come to know our core values as there will be some principles
which we will just be unable to part with. This would show that NRE does have
some value as a way of describing an individual’s beliefs to themselves and in
turn helping one to explain them to others.

However, it cannot do much else. Beyond describing something
which most people already have a good sense of, it is incapable of doing
anything more philosophically sophisticated. It cannot tell you which moral
beliefs are more likely to be true as anything which comes out of the method is
just a slightly more coherent version of your own initial beliefs. It is also
questionable if this method is even needed as attempting to make our beliefs
coherent is something which most persons already seem to do implicitly. This
would all show that while NRE is effective at describing our moral commitments
to us by making them more coherent it cannot do anything beyond this and
therefore is philosophically uninteresting.


2.2.1 Foundationalist WRE is a Misinterpretation

I believe that the Foundationalist interpretation of WRE is incorrect.
This is based upon my reading of Rawlsian WRE which is usually considered to be
the most authoritative version. Rawls does not believe, or at least thinks it unlikely,
that basic moral beliefs exist. He goes to great lengths to tell us how “deeply
divided by conflicting and even incommensurable religious, philosophical and
moral doctrines,” (2005, p. 134) we are and that no “agreement
on those disputed questions can 
reasonably be expected.” (2005, p. 150) He thinks that the
reason for this widespread disagreement is the conditions of freedom which
agents operate under within a liberal democracy. (Quong, 2017) These conditions are
the ones in which most contemporary persons live, meaning it would be unlikely
that there would be any general convergence upon certain morals being
self-evidently true. Rawls goes on to tell us that this lack of convergence within
everyday moral discourse and WRE would most likely indicate an absence of basic
moral beliefs as one would think there would “be a sufficient agreement between
the moral conceptions affirmed in wide reflective equilibrium” if this was not
the case. (1974, p. 9) He goes on to say
that it is due to this lack of convergence “that the procedure of reflective
equilibrium does not assume that there is one correct moral,” conception, as
there would appear to be little grounds for doing so. (1974, p. 9) I believe that this
textual evidence shows that Rawls was sceptical, if not entirely disbelieving,
of there being any self-evident moral truths and since his version of WRE
serves as the template for most others it would seem  implausible to see this method as
foundationalist in nature and therefore impossible to implement.


2.2.2 Foundationalist WRE Also Fails Due to a Lack of Basic
Moral Beliefs

Even if one were to ignore the fact that foundationalist WRE
is a misinterpretation, it would still be inadequate due to a lack of basic
moral beliefs. There would appear to be few if any moral claims which can be
claimed uncontrovertibly to be self-evident. As mentioned earlier via Rawls
there are deep, seemingly intractable disagreements within moral discourse with
little hope of them ever being resolved. No moral belief can be
uncontrovertibly claimed to be self-evident, they are all constantly being
questioned by someone. To put this in perspective, it has also been proposed by
some to use foundationalist WRE within science as a way of resolving disputes
within this field. (Knight, 2017, p. 46) This is achievable
as there are facts within science which are uncontrovertibly basic since they map
on to something physical within the natural world, granting them indubitability.
However, this cannot be said of moral philosophy and without these uncontrovertibly
basic beliefs, foundationalist WRE cannot justify non-basic moral beliefs, making
it an impossible method.


2.3.1 Coherentist WRE Fails as it is Indeterminate When It
Comes to Revising One’s Incoherent Views Which Introduces Bias into the Method

Coherentist WRE claims to screen out personnel bias. It
supposedly achieves this by incorporating background theories and the moral principles
of others. However, I believe that bias remains a feature of coherentist WRE as
it is indeterminate when it comes to revising our moral beliefs. By indeterminate
I mean that when either you or another’s moral principles clash with your
considered judgements and/or relevant background theories it cannot provide any
guidance on which element to remove or revise. To go back to the example of RE’s
use in science, when there is a clash between a hypothesis (the equivalent of a
considered judgement) and empirical evidence (the equivalent of a moral principle)
the method does provide guidance on what to revise. We should revise the
hypothesis as the piece of empirical evidence maps on to something physical
within nature, granting it uncontroversial credence. There is no equivalent when
coherentist WRE is applied to moral philosophy as moral principles and
considered judgements have nothing to map on to. There is not anything which
can grant moral claims uncontroversial indubitability. This renders the method indeterminate
as it cannot guide you how to revise your moral beliefs when one of its elements
does not cohere with the rest. This is an issue as you have no way of knowing which
element is faulty or how to correct it, but it leads to a bigger problem as it introduces
bias into the method. Since we have no guidance on how to revise our moral
beliefs it is likely that we will attempt to illegitimately prioritise the
preservation of our most cherished values. As Hegel tells us our personhood is
created through the social and cultural circumstances we are born into. (1977, pp.
This includes our core moral beliefs which make up a large part of our identity.
It is reasonable then to assume that we will be unlikely to ever revise these
values within coherentist WRE regardless of their truth value. For example, it
is improbable that persons who have grown up within a liberal democratic
culture would ever seriously contemplate questioning the illegitimacy of
slavery, as an equality of persons is a fundamental moral of the culture which
informs their sense of self. Rather than seriously challenging our moral
beliefs so we can revise them to better approximate truth, coherentist WRE simply
entrenches our deeply held cultural biases through its indeterminacy. This
along with the indeterminacy itself makes it impossible to implement unproblematically.


2.3.2 Epistemic Gap

Another issue with coherentist WRE is that there will always
be an epistemic gap within the method. By epistemic gap I mean that we can
never know if we have considered enough information or the relevance of the background
theories we have chosen to include and exclude. The method provides us with no
tools to tell if enough information in the form of moral principles has been
utilised to produce a plausible outcome. In addition to this the method
requires us to include “relevant” background theories, however it is not always
clear which background theories will be relevant to which moral quandary and
coherentist WRE provides no guidance on this. Due to these serious epistemic
issues it is impossible to utilise coherentist WRE unproblematically.


2.3.3 Coherent Beliefs are Not Necessarily True

Finally, it is unclear if coherence entails truth. Just
because sets of moral principles, considered judgements and background theories
align does not mean that the overarching moral belief they support is
necessarily true. In fact, all three components could be false and still cohere
with each other. The method can only show that a justification for a moral
belief is false through its lack of internal coherence, but it cannot show any moral
belief to be true, making the method impossible to implement unproblematically.


3.1 Potential Objection to 2.3.3: RE as a Guiding Ideal

A potential response to my point that coherent beliefs are
not necessarily true is that RE was always intended as a guiding ideal. Therefore,
even if it does not provide a justification for our beliefs, it could still be
a worthwhile tool to maintain their coherence as a consistent view is at the
very least plausible.



3.2 My Response to the Objection

While there is some value to consistently refining the
internal coherence of our beliefs I believe that this usage of RE as a guiding
ideal runs the risk of entrenching our biases. A constant affirmation of our
beliefs’ internal consistency may deter us from examining the equally coherent
moral beliefs of others. The lack of justificatory function may also create a
false sense of equivalence between differing moral beliefs. One could plausibly
construct a coherent belief that slavery is moral and an equally coherent
belief that it is immoral. With no truth function there would be no way of
vindicating either belief.


4.0 Conclusion

I have shown that NRE is plausible yet uninteresting and
that WRE is impossible to utilise unproblematically. I did this by first describing
both forms of RE. I then showed that while NRE can accurately describe our
beliefs it cannot do much beyond this. I also highlighted two key weakness of
foundationalist WRE and three of coherentist WRE. Foundationalist WRE is
impossible to utilise unproblematically as it is a misinterpretation of WRE and
because it relies upon non-existent basic moral beliefs. Coherentist WRE is
impossible to utilise unproblematically as it is indeterminate in terms of
telling us how to revise incoherent beliefs which then introduces bias into the
method. It also suffers from an epistemic “gap” as you cannot know if you have
included enough information in the form of moral principles or which background
theories are relevant. It is equally unclear if coherentist WRE can act as a
form of justification. I then responded to a potential objection against my argument
that coherence does not entail truth, that it should still be used as a guiding
ideal to constantly check the coherence of our beliefs for the sake of their
own internal consistency. I did this by pointing out that using WRE as a
guiding ideal may entrench biases and create a false moral equivalence between
equally coherent beliefs.



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