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Why We Need Reflective Equilibrium Now More Than Ever

Note: This article was originally published on Medium.com on July 5th, 2020 by me. I am the original author of this article, and am reposting that article on this, my own website.

Reflective equilibrium is a philosophical concept that emerged in the late 20th century. While other philosophers may have described similar concepts earlier, the actual phrase was first used by the political philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 book Theory of Justice. Upfront, I must admit that when I first read Rawls as a philosophy student many moons ago, the details of the main arguments contained in his series of books (in which he attempts to develop a just theory of distributive justice) either went over my head, or else I have long since forgotten them.

But the good news is, you don’t have to be an expert on Rawls or political philosophy (I certainly am not) to appreciate his idea of reflective equilibrium. In fact, I don’t even think it is important to understand how Rawls used the concept within his arguments about justice at all. To me, the concept of reflective equilibrium is such a white-hot philosophical nugget on its own that I think this is the reason that it was the only element of Rawls’ arguments that has stuck with me and still continues to impact my thoughts and actions — even many years after I first encountered it.

I believe that one of the main reasons why the concept of reflective equilibrium has not had a chance to break out and become more widely-known is because (as with my experience with Rawls) it is usually found inside of — and kept within — dense philosophical texts and arguments. But I believe that on its own, it could find a much bigger and broader audience outside of the dusty archives of philosophy. So again, if you haven’t heard of John Rawls, or if you have not studied philosophy in an academic setting, please don’t let that stop you. I believe reflective equilibrium is an idea that can and will benefit everyone.

So what is it? If you look for the definition of reflective equilibrium within the context of academic philosophical discussions, you will find that since Rawls’ original usage, there have been numerous interpretations and attempts at a rigorous definitions of the concept. Just for some context and background, you may wish to browse some of the philosophical definitions (try here or here) — but be warned if you do! Make sure you don’t go too far down the rabbit-hole because you might get bogged down in the academic philosophical jargon and then lose all interest in the topic — and I’d hate to lose you now if you’ve already made it this far.

So instead of getting weighed-down in the philosophical versions of the concept (let’s just set those aside for this discussion) I am interested in discussing my own version of reflective equilibrium — the one that has stuck with me long after I have forgotten the original philosophical context. It is this version of reflective equilibrium (perhaps an overly simplistic one) that I believe has broader application outside of philosophy — and that could be an important, perhaps even life-changing, concept for many people. So for purposes of general discussion let’s use this description of reflective equilibrium:

Think of your own set of guiding principles (big and small) that you use to make everyday decisions: Being nice to others, don’t steal, protect your family, be a good citizen, don’t be late, use good manners, etc. Now think of those ideas as a network of interrelated principles upon which you need to continuously and actively reflect, with the goal of balancing them so that conflicts (or inconsistencies) among the various beliefs are minimized, and harmony and coherence among them is maximized.

I’m guessing that even if you haven’t heard of reflective equilibrium prior to reading this article, my version of it (as presented above), might not seem like a new concept to most of you. In fact, you probably perform some version of this type of balancing activity all the time, but perhaps just never put a name to it. And you might even think that reflective equilibrium seems easy — but don’t let its simplicity fool you.

I believe that one of the reasons that the concept will seem familiar to most people is that we all can recognize what it means for someone who holds two principles that are very far out of balance. In fact we even have a lovely name for such a person: a hypocrite. It is also true that we can see hypocrisy most easily in others, but unfortunately have a harder time recognizing it in ourselves. But the good news is that if you understand the concept of hypocrisy, this is just a simplified and small-scale version of reflective equilibrium. What happens when we recognize hypocrisy is we see a person saying or acting a certain way (behavior one or B1) — but we also see that B1 conflicts with some other thing that the person says or believes (B2).

Recognizing hypocrisy in this way is the same as recognizing the importance of finding equilibrium or balance between two conflicting principles and their resulting behaviors (B1 and B2). Of course, what follows from this is an understanding that in order for the two (potentially conflicting) principles to co-exist within the same person’s belief system, some rethinking may be required: Perhaps the person merely needs to adjust their position on one or the other principles to a more nuanced position. Or if the conflict is severe enough, perhaps the person will need to change their mind entirely about one or the other ideas in conflict.

Seems easy right? Not so fast. We all know that it is very hard for us to examine our own beliefs in an unbiased and rational way, and changing our own minds about a pair (or a small number) of conflicting beliefs — let alone convincing someone else to change their mind — is an exceedingly rare occurrence. And the difficulty we see in this case is just over one small set of beliefs.

Now imagine the exponentially more challenging task presented by the notion of reflective equilibrium, which demands that we perform this same type of balancing activity for ALL of our beliefs. Here is where the concept gets very difficult, because chances are very high that you (and by “you” I mean ALL OF US) have MANY underlying guiding principles — most of which you probably don’t even realize you have and are actively using. And these principles are always at work as you make your day-to-day decisions — big and small. If balancing a small set of ideas seems challenging, now imagine trying to do this with dozens or perhaps even hundreds of ideas. Balancing your principles will likely require you to re-evaluate and/or develop nuanced positions in MANY areas that you previously did not realize.

So if I have convinced you of the value of reflective equilibrium, you should also understand that we all have a LOT of work to do.

So why do I believe reflective equilibrium is so important NOW? I have been thinking about reflective equilibrium for over two decades now, and I have often thought about how I wish more people knew about it. But at the time and location of this writing (2020 in the U.S.A.) we seem to be living in the most polarizing time imaginable, and this is why it is so important — I believe reflective equilibrium could be an effective tool, and if more people were aware of it and actively used it, it might just help us through these trying times.

We Americans are rapidly turning EVERYTHING possible into a politically charged and aisle-splitting issue: Wearing masks to help decrease the spread of a deadly disease (or not). Saying Black Lives Matter (or retorting with All Lives Matter). Taking issue (or not) with children being held in cages at our border. Or celebrating (or lamenting) the removal of confederate and racist symbols— just to name a few of the current issues, but the list goes on and on. And the worst part is, just as I believe things are especially bad now, I cringe even harder at the thought that things seem to keep getting worse. What will be the new polarizing issue in America? Just wait a week, we’ll find a new one.

So how can you start using reflective equilibrium to help offset all of this? Well we’ve all heard the idiom: If you change yourself you will change your world, right? But I believe that we can also encourage others to think in terms of reflective equilibrium too. Here is how: Think about an issue (in the current news-cycle or otherwise), and think about your position or stance related to that issue (encourage others around you to do this too — especially if you find that you hold a different stance from them). Now try to list the guiding principles that you believe has led you to your position. Here’s a hint of how to do this: Act like a toddler and keep asking yourself one simple question: Why? (Followed by Why?, then Why?, and Why? again.)

Start like this: (1) What is my stance related to the issue? (Describe it). (2) Then ask yourself: Why do I hold this stance? (List out all your justifications and rationale). (3) Now continue: Why do I believe those justifications are trustworthy or correct? (List your justifications for the justifications you just used.) And (4): Keep going until you can’t go any deeper. You may only get one or two levels deep here, but the key here is to just be honest with yourself and describe your justification at each level as best as you can.

If done correctly, there will be some issues where you go several levels deep and then find yourself at one of your core principles which are usually a BIG IDEA like a religious principle (e.g., thou shall not murder), or an established American principle such as freedom-of-speech or, the Golden Rule, etc. When this happens, it is important to take note of these cases and the principle(s) you used, but don’t worry about them as much because if your position is justified by a BIG IDEA, that tends to mean that it has very good roots. (On the other hand, you should certainly pay attention to other principles or stances you hold that might conflict with your big, well-rooted principles.)

But not every issue requires the use of a BIG IDEA or a core principle. In fact, for the majority of the issues we encounter on a daily basis, you will find that you don’t justify your stances with one of these big and well-rooted principles like the ones I listed above. Take special note of these cases as well— because if you find out that you don’t have your position rooted with something solid (or if you discover that your position conflicts with one of your big-principles), this might be a sign that there is some shaky ground, and the hard work of reflection and re-balancing will be needed.

In addition, you might find that some of your less-then-strong principles that are actively used in your justifications for your positions might reveal some unexpected results upon examination. If you find out that your justification for believing things end up having problematic consequences like showing a biased preference for one group over another, or valuing things like personal property over the lives of people, then it is again likely time for a re-balancing. These types of beliefs can easily sneak their way into all of our minds, and sometimes even without our awareness.

So after you spend some time laying out a few examples of your reasoning in this way, you will (hopefully) be able to start finding and weeding out all of the poorly-rooted, and inconsistent beliefs. And you may be able to do this before you get accused by others as being a hypocrite (or worse).

Attempting to keep track of all of the principles at work contributing to your system of beliefs will not be easy. Reflecting upon them, and balancing them will be even harder. I often wish there was an app that would help me do this (I’ve even made several failed attempts at making one myself— any tech-savvy app-makers out there willing to consult with me on this, please let me know!). But without such a tool, you might just need to make notes on your phone or on a pad of paper. Just know that the process will require some deep reflection, and perhaps you might even need to (heaven forbid!) change your mind about some things. But just remember that personal growth is rarely easy. Good luck, and happy reflective equilibrium-ing!

…and thanks be to Rawls.

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-grayscale-of-a-lady-justice-figurine-6077181/


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