Libertarianism 7: Reflective Equilibrium–a sidebar on thinking about ethics

I began Christian Ethics Bites several years ago for practical reasons.  My professional life at my university had come to revolve around teaching and administration, work that while important  had come to crowd out my own research and writing.  I wanted to create something that would allow me to write regularly about the ideas that interest me.

Moreover, my vision for Christian Ethics Bites has always been to make my writing interesting and intelligible to people who do not spend their lives in academia.  The audience I envision here includes people like my wife, my mom and dad, and my undergraduate students–capable and intelligent people whose only disadvantage (and is it a disadvantage, really?) is that they have not spent as much time as me suffering through dense, poorly written academic texts. I tell my students that if they spend enough time at university they too can learn to write as poorly as their professors. I want everyday people to be able to read what I write here, and even if they don’t agree with my conclusions I want them to leave saying that they understand what I’ve said.  Some posts have hit this mark closer than others. Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style looms large for me as I think about what I aspire to in my writing.

Over the last few months I’ve been blogging about libertarianism. Looking back over my posts in this series, I think that some of my posts do a better job than others of conveying essential features of libertarian thought for everyday readers.  The first post in the series is pretty good in this regard. I now see that the post on John Locke is too dense. I know this is true; my wife’s eyes glazed over as I was reading it to her, a sure sign that my writing fell short. Writing well is a challenge.  It’s easier to write poorly.

Today I know that what I’m about to do runs the risk of losing some of my audience.  I began writing this post last week, fully intending to focus my attention digging more deeply into the anarcholibertarian theory I introduced in my previous blog post.  As I got further into writing, however, I couldn’t shake this feeling that this series would benefit if I would step back from the details of libertarian thought to focus more generally on methodology, how I think about ethics. A lot of what I’m about to say is going to sound completely disconnected from libertarianism, so bear with me. I promise there is a payoff in the conclusion.

Here it goes. At the risk of losing you, my reader, in paragraph 5, let me first identify the abstract concept I’m about to describe: reflective equilibrium. What is reflective equilibrium?  That’s the focus of today’s post. Popularized by the American philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, reflective equilibrium is a model that describes how to think about ethics. It’s not the only possible way to think about ethics, nor is it a model that every ethicist finds helpful.  Nonetheless, it is a model that I have found helpful in making sense of what I am striving for when I teach students in my ethics classroom.

To get at what reflective equilibrium is, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a short story.  I want you to read the story.  Pay careful attention to your reaction to the characters in the story.  Here it goes:

“Todd raped the 5 year old child repeatedly during the night.  As morning approached, Todd killed the child, mutilating the corpse before burying it in his backyard.”

The end.

This story is horrific, isn’t it? What happened to you when you first read it?  I was reluctant to even tell the story. Even without the details of Todd’s violence, the story seems grotesque and graphic. Todd’s actions are morally repugnant, or so I feel that they are.  What about you?  Doesn’t your gut tell you that what Todd has done is gravely wrong? You read the story and there is very little thought involved; something simply feels wrong about Todd’s action.

In ethics, these gut-level moral responses that we have are called moral intuitions.  These intuitive responses to moral situations  are a vital element of our moral identities. Sometimes these intuitions can be quite powerful.  My gut speaks very strongly to me that raping, killing, and mutilating a child is morally wrong.  Doesn’t yours? Moral intuitions are essential to our moral identity because very often–most of the time, in fact, if moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct–our “gut” is what prompts our moral actions. Driven by our moral intuitions, we are like giant elephants making our way through the world. While we might believe that reason guides our moral lives, our heads are little more than a rider on the elephant.  The rider will try to steer the elephant, but in the end the elephant will do what the elephant does, at least most of the time.


But this begs a question: if moral intuitions are the primary forces guiding our moral action, why spend any time engaging in rational reflection about morality? What’s the point of thinking about ethics? Aren’t we just wasting our time studying rational, philosophical arguments? Why not simply accept the value of our intuitions and act accordingly? Why not simply go with our gut?

The problem with simply trusting our gut is that even a surface-level exploration of our own history points to examples of people whose intuitions led them to conclusions that most of us today recognize as immoral. Our own community is still coming to grips with the consequences of the moral intuitions that people long had about race, for example. The legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation loom over us, enough to suggest that we should be wary of simply trusting our intuitions. Reason is important.  While our moral actions might not be fundamentally guided by our heads, reason offers a critical check on our moral impulses.  By thinking about ethics we put ourselves in a position to assess whether our moral intuitions are pointing us in the right direction.

This is what reflective equilibrium is about. Reflective equilibrium is a methodology that strives to make rational sense of our moral intuitions. When thinking about ethics I am attempting to subject my moral intuitions to rational scrutiny.  Knowing that my intuitions are basic to my moral identity, but aware that I cannot simply trust my intuitions without question, what I am seeking when I think about ethics are rational arguments that can explain why my moral intuitions are, in fact, valid.  I find reflective equilibrium when my moral intuitions–for example, my intuition that raping and mutilating a young child is morally wrong–converge with a rational argument that explain why rape and mutilation are morally wrong. Feeling so strongly about the essential wrongness of rape, I might encounter Immanuel Kant’s argument that morality requires that we always respect the inherent dignity of every other person, never treating people as means to an end.  Kant’s argument helps me make rational sense of why Todd’s actions are morally wrong, and why my intuitive response is morally appropriate.  Or perhaps I’ll find myself quite drawn to a utilitarian argument about the horrendous social consequences that would occur were we to conclude that rape is morally right, the adverse effects on the victim, the fear and distrust that such a conclusion would cause in our society, the effects that such a conclusion would have on human relationships. Both arguments offer a rational basis for explaining why my moral intuitions are morally appropriate.

Ideally, it is possible for us to achieve reflective equilibrium for all of our intuitions, to make rational sense of why we should feel the way that we do about the range of moral issues we encounter.  However, this is the challenge: sometimes there are circumstances where our moral intuitions conflict with a rational argument that on its face seems quite persuasive. In these moments, we experience disequilibrium.  In my ethics classroom some of the most interesting and instructive moments for students happen when they first encounter a rational argument that calls one of their deeply held moral intuitions into question. A student might have a very strong feeling that abortion is a gravely immoral act, for example, but then they are required to read Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson’s thought experiment of the unconscious dying violinist troubles this intuition.  They find her argument compelling, and they are left wrestling with what they have long felt about abortion and what Thomson is suggesting is the rational thing to believe. Conversely, a student might have a very strong intuition that there is nothing morally problematic about terminating an early-term fetus, but then the student reads Don Marquis’s article, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” and the student begins to grapple with an argument that suggests they should feel very differently about the act of abortion.

So what do you do when you experience disequilibrium?  Here you are faced with several possibilities.  First, in the face of a conflict between your moral intuitions and a persuasive rational argument you might simply throw your hands up in the air, dismiss the argument and go with your gut.  This is a bad choice, in my view.  Remember, we are already aware that moral intuitions have led people to embrace beliefs and practices that we now recognize as immoral.  We can’t simply trust our moral guts.  Dismissing an argument because it conflicts with what you feel is intellectually lazy.  It’s a sign that you lack virtue.

Here is another possibility: the conflict between your moral intuition and a rational argument might force you to look at the rational argument more closely.  Digging more deeply into the details of the argument you might discover that what initially seems quite persuasive to you is flawed. The argument relies on a logical fallacy, or it neglects something critical to understanding the moral question. You search further for a better argument, perhaps revising the argument to address its weakness, or finally dismissing the argument altogether when a better argument comes along, one that offers a better basis for understanding why your moral intuitions have been correct all along. This rational argument helps you find reflective equilibrium once again.

Here is a final possibility.  Your gut is is speaking to you about a moral question, and you encounter a persuasive rational argument that calls your intuitions into question.  Digging more deeply into the argument, you keep looking for flaws, but you begin to realize that the real problem rests not in the argument itself, but in your intuitions.  This very strong feeling that you have is where the problem is.  To find reflective equilibrium what needs to change is not the argument, but your gut. Finding reflective equilibrium requires a change to your character.  You need to become a person who feels differently about things.

This is how I think about the work that I do in the ethics classroom. When we think about ethics we put ourselves in a position where we are better able to check these very powerful intuitions that drive our moral lives.  Moral intuitions are fallible, as are the rational judgments that we make about the right and the good.  Reflective equilibrium is a model that requires us to acknowledge this fallibility, to pursue moral arguments with others in a spirit of openness and humility, aware that our moral lives entail this back and forth between intuition and reason. When we come to see the task of ethics in this way we open ourselves to forging a different kind of community, one in which our moral disagreements with others are defined not by anxiety and fear but by generosity and mutual respect.

So what does this have to do with libertarianism?  Occasionally when discussing my current project with people I’ll have an interlocutor query why I’m spending time reading thinkers who have had minimal impact in the field of Christian ethics, let alone in the wider academy.  It’s a fair question. I’ve offered several answers to this question over the last year. I tell folks that I find libertarianism interesting. I point to colleagues and friends who identify as libertarian, people whom I respect whose ideas I want to understand better.  I remind people that while libertarianism is not front-and-center in contemporary American policies that the language and ideas that are foundational to libertarian thought–appeals to liberty, aggressive diatribes against the evils of socialism, and demands for a smaller state–are embraced by a substantial swath of the American public.

In the end when I explain to people why I’m studying libertarianism the most important answer for me is this: libertarian theorists are asking people like me to check our moral intuitions about some facets of our life together that we have taken for granted.  When Murray Rothbard tells me, for example, that states are nothing more than crime syndicates, that my commitment to liberty entails that I advocate for the abolition of all states, he is telling me that my gut needs to change, that I need to be a different person.  In reading libertarian thinkers like Nozick, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and Woods I experience disequilibrium. Libertarian thinkers force me to do what I want my students to do every semester, to remain open to the possibility that my intuitions are what really need to change.

This is a deeply unsettling conclusion for me, but it’s one I can’t help but embrace. That’s what reflective equilibrium requires.  That said, the other possibility is also the case. It could well be that given my deep intuitions about the legitimate role that states play in the world that these intuitions point to problems in the arguments that libertarians like Rothbard make.  This is where I find myself at this moment. Rothbard’s argument points us to some moral conclusions that on their face seem patently absurd, even grotesque. That’s what I want to talk about in my next post.

We’re going to talk about the problem of children.







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