What is Reflective Equilibrium?

Seek your inner philosopher, find your reflective balance.

The term “reflective equilibrium” is attributed to the philosopher John Rawls, who initially described and made use of this concept in his political philosophy opus A Theory of Justice (1971). Academic descriptions and discussions of his phrase are abundant in philosophical journals and encyclopedias (see for example, here), but as I have described more fully elsewhere, I believe a more simple and practical version of the idea can be summarized as follows:

Our Explanation 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, do not steal, protect and provide for your family, be a good citizen, do not be late, use good manners, etc.

Now think of those ideas as a network of interrelated principles upon which you need to reflect continuously and actively, 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.

So how does it work? Imagine that you encounter a new idea or concept – perhaps you just read about the latest hot-button topic in the news, and you are trying to decide upon which “side” of the issue you fall. How can you use reflective equilibrium to help you decide if the position you decide to take is the right one? Rather than trying to justify your new view by digging deeper into its own internal merits (and in an isolated fashion), the method of reflective equilibrium encourages you to nestle this new idea right in the middle of all your other core ideas and principles. After you have done this (and this is the critical part), you then need to evaluate whether the new idea “jives” or works well with your other views, or whether it causes incoherence and/or conflicts with your other ideas.

If you discover that the new idea fits in nicely within your existing network, chances are you can accept your new viewpoint and move on. Although for this to work properly, it is essential to make sure that you are thorough! If you do not find any conflict with your other ideas merely because you did not look carefully enough, this could potentially cause you to hold conflicting viewpoints – and this might even lead you to think and/or act hypocritically without even realizing it!

On the other hand, if your investigation reveals that the addition of your new idea causes a conflict or incoherence with your other ideas (even a minor one!) there is work that will need to be done. The reflective equilibrium method requires you to find a way to rebalance your views somehow. You could perhaps choose to modify the new idea – but you might also choose to modify some of the other beliefs with which the new idea came into conflict. Either way, something needs to give so that a rebalancing can occur. But be careful – if you change or modify even one of your ideas (especially if it is a “core” belief), you might find that there could be a cascade reaction of other ideas that might also need to be evaluated and rebalanced. (Yes, reflective equilibrium might be a simple idea to comprehend – but no one ever said that it would be easy to actually execute!)

A Philosophy with an Action Plan

Despite the hard work that may be required, to me, the most elegant and beautiful aspect of reflective equilibrium is how practical it is (this is not often the case for most philosophical ideas). As mentioned above, rather than trying to break our viewpoints down into their atomic components and then analyze them from the ground up (as many famous philosophers tried to do – I’m looking at you Descartes!), this methodology encourages us to actively “throw ideas into the mix” to see how things play out. This is a “real world” philosophy that is fairly simple to understand – but it certainly also requires some honest evaluation, and plenty of time to really think deeply about how our ideas and values balance within our own minds.

Why Reflective Equilibrium Reflects Who We Are

One of the reasons that I chose to make Reflective Equilibrium the name of this website and the name of the company that I founded, is because of my passion regarding the type of life that I believe people can have if they start thinking this way. I truly believe that if more people used reflective equilibrium on a regular basis, the world would be a more harmonious, balanced, and peaceful place. We aim to help serve as a gentle reminder to think a little more deeply about anything, and everything.

We also aim to help reflective and philosophically-minded people find more ways to have a positive influence on the world through the creation of businesses, websites, and other digital spaces that can reflect our values and change the world for the better.

If you agree with the ideas of our guiding philosophy of reflective equilibrium, this site is for you! Take a look around, read and comment on some of our articles, and join our newsletter so you don’t miss anything new. You can also find us on many of the usual “socials” (more coming soon!).

And most importantly: Keep on reflecting! A more balanced world awaits you!

Thanks for joining us,

Benett B, Founder of Reflective Equilibrium Marketing LLC


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