AN ANALYSIS OF RAWLS’ REFLECTIVE EQUILIBRIUM AS A METHOD OF JUSTIFICATION IN ETHICS

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INTRODUCTION

  • Background to the Study

How can moral beliefs be justified? This is a question that has occupied a central place in the his- tory of moral epistemology. It is not very clear how an individual‘s actions can be described as morally right if his action is not based on justified beliefs about what actions are morally right. Is it possible however to justify beliefs about what actions are morally right?

In his article ‗‗Moral Skepticisms and Justification‘‘, Sinnott-Armstrong advances an epistemic regress argument against the justification of moral beliefs, leading to skepticism about the possi- bility of justifying moral beliefs (Sinnott-Armstrong, 1995, p. 9). The regress argument in general raises the question of how a belief can be justified without being inferred from another belief that is also not justified. The problem here is that an attempt to justify any one belief would seem to require an infinite regress of reasons and if the regress cannot be completed then it follows that no belief can be justified. When applied to moral beliefs, the epistemic regress argument leads to the disturbing conclusion that moral beliefs cannot be justified. Can this problem be remedied ?

In this thesis, I argue for Rawls‘ reflective equilibrium as a method of justification of moral be- liefs that adequately answers Sinnott-Armstrong‘s epistemic regress argument. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls deploys the method of reflective equilibrium to justify his principles of justice. The method consists generally in the identification of considered moral judgments, the formula- tion of moral principles that explicate these judgments and the elimination of conflicts that arise among them (Rawls, 1971, p. 12). In applying the method of reflective equilibrium, Rawls main- tains that ‗‗a conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises or conditions or
principles; instead its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything together into one coherent view‘‘1 (Rawls, 1971, p. 21). Reflective equilibrium can therefore be construed as a coherentist method of justification of moral beliefs. In arguing for the plausibility of Rawls‘ method of reflective equilibrium as an adequate response to Sinnott- Armstrong‘s epistemic regress argument, this research also points out the inadequacies of two alternative methods, namely, the intuitionist method and naturalistic epistemology. I have chosen to specifically examine these three methods of justification because they provide the broad basis from which subsequent methods of justification are developed.