Rawls’ Concept of Reflective Equilibrium and Its Original Function in A Theory of Justice


The aim of this Article is to explain the meaning and original function of reflective equilibrium in A Theory of Justice. To accomplish this objective, I first briefly clarify the technical nature of this concept and then summarize the main contractual argument of Rawls' influential book (Part I). Next, I explain the meaning and function of reflective equilibrium in Sections 4 and 9 of A Theory of Justice, calling attention to several apparent and previously unnoticed differences between these two distinct accounts (Part II). I then discuss the distinction Rawls draws implicitly in A Theory of Justice and explicitly in Independence between narrow and wide reflective equilibrium (Part III). Finally, I discuss and criticize Daniels' influential interpretation of the latter distinction, making plain the differences between Daniels' deliberately non-psychological account of wide reflective equilibrium and Rawls' own partly psychological account (Part IV). Throughout the article, my primary purpose is careful exegesis and analysis of what Rawls actually says about reflective equilibrium in A Theory of Justice and Independence. This effort is a necessary first step in clarifying many of the philosophical and jurisprudential debates that have surrounded the meaning and function of this concept, as well as many debates about the aims, scope, and authority of moral philosophy more generally during the past four decades.


Jurisprudence, Morality, Reflective Equilibrium, Theory of Justice, John Rawls, Normativity



John Mikhail (Georgetown University Law Center)



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