Bonevac’s “Reflection Without Equilibrium”

In “Reflection without Equilibrium” Dan Bonevac argues against reflective equilibrium (RE) as outlined by Rawls. Dan concludes RE is a procedure that never terminates in a finite amount of time. As a result, RE must be revised in a pragmatic, intuitionist direction. I will argue this conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of Rawls’ constructivist model and how this model solves what’s known as the priority problem—assigning weight to a plurality of competing values.

First, let’s setup one of Dan’s arguments. In Theory of Justice (p.45) Rawls contrasts intuitionist versus constructivist solutions to the priority problem. Dan takes Rawls’ comments to imply that people can choose to make the moral facts as simple or as complex as they want. If this were true, according to Dan, wanting the priority problem to have a solution would make it have a solution. This would be a strike against the intuitionist because he believes that the plurality of competing values cannot be simplified; there are no higher order principles that can be ranked and consulted to determine the outcome and settle the issue between competing values or moral facts. Dan takes the quote from Theory (p. 45)  to imply that we could choose to make the moral facts simple, thereby defeating the intuitionist’s complexity thesis. From this line of reasoning the following argument is laid out on page 19:

  1. Choices in the original position determine the principles of justice.
  2. The principles of justice chosen in the original position determine the moral facts.
  3. People in the original position would choose to make the moral facts simple.
  4. So, moral facts are simple.

To show how deficient such reasoning, Dan runs a parallel argument about a batter wanting to hit a home run: (i) if a batter’s choices determine the trajectory of the bat and (ii) the trajectory of the bat determines if the ball goes over the wall, then (iii) every batter would chose to hit a home run on every pitch, so (iv) every batter would hit a home run on every pitch. Dan analyzes premises (1 and i) and shows how many factors determine whether the choices a batter makes determine the trajectory of the bat or whether choices in the original position determine the principles of justice. He weakens this premise to account for these factors (i.e. choices, under ideal conditions, contribute to determining…).

Next, Dan skips premise (2) and argues against premise (3). This is a mistake because (2), while stated explicitly by Rawls, is take out of context and misused by Dan. (2) is not a premise Rawls uses in an antirealist argument against the independent existence of moral facts. Rawls is not constructivist in terms of being an antirealist; instead, Rawls is a constructivist along Kantian lines. He believes certain criteria can be used by rational people in deliberation to reach agreement or disagreement about what is the case. Rawls thought people in the original position could reach agreement in judgments. The principles chosen in the original position and their coherence with moral judgments produces an outcome that reflects our moral sensibility.

Rawls was not arguing that people can fashion the moral facts in any way they see fit. The moral facts are not constructed in the sense of being infinitely pliable (thus, they are able to be made simple or complex based on how we want them to turn out).  Instead, the moral facts are constructed because simple facts, the existence of which Rawls or Kant would not deny, are determined to be moral facts by principles that assign them weight as reasons. This assigning of weight solves the priority problem. The moral facts are then used, within RE or the categorical imperative procedure, to support certain conclusions. Moral facts are not infinitely pliable nor are they fixed ethical truths. They are simple facts principles have selected as relevant from a moral point of view. I would reformulate the argument as follows:

  1. Choices in the original position determine the principles of justice.
  2. The principles of justice chosen in the original position determine the moral facts.
  3. People in the original position can agree (or disagree) about the moral facts.
  4. So, moral facts are objective.

Another consequence of Dan misconstruing the form of constructivism proposed by Rawls is that his argument against RE reaching equilibrium is on less sure footing. That is, it is wrong to associate the set of stable judgments with ethical truths. The target of reasoning for Rawls is not ethical truths but objectivity in the sense of agreement that mirrors our sense of justice.

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