Applying reflective equilibrium. A case study in justification

Dissertation, University of Bern (2018)

Authors
Tanja Rechnitzer
Universität Hannover
Abstract
How should we proceed when searching for justified answers to normative questions? A prominent proposal is to use the method of reflective equilibrium (RE). Its basic Idea—that we should start from our existing judgments about relevant cases and bring them into equilibrium with systematic principles—is readily recited, but beyond that, conceptions of RE often stay sketchy. RE is seldom explicitly implemented, which makes it difficult to critically evaluate the method and to assess its potential. In my dissertation, I present the first explicit and detailed case study for an application of RE, using it to develop and defend a precautionary principle. The dissertation is divided in two parts, a theoretical and an applied part. In part I, I introduce and operationalize a specific conception of RE. I first describe the central elements of RE by drawing on the most elaborate and fleshed-out conceptions of RE that can be found in the literature. Then, I survey and analyze previous applications of RE in order to both learn from them and identify desiderata for my own case study. Based on a small-scale, exploratory case study, the method is further concretized and operationalized for the implementation in my main case study on the justification of a precautionary principle. In part II, this operationalization is tested in a complex case study that aims at justifying a precautionary principle which is applicable to problems arising from global climate change. In order to be able to select relevant commitments about central problems concerning precautionary principles (PPs), I start with a literature survey. The survey gives an overview on existing proposals for PPs, on which grounds they are defended, and the main objections against them. On this basis, I develop and describe the initial setup for the case study, which is conducted in three main steps and allows to examine different aspects of a RE-application. Thereby, I show that RE can be applied successfully to real problems. I go on to discuss a number of points that are not given sufficient attention in the RE literature so far. With respect to precautionary principles, I show how the commonly discussed principles fail to do justice to ethical considerations, and argue that the application of such principles should instead be triggered by threats of rights violations.
Keywords reflective equilibrium  precautionary principle  philosophical methods  justification  case study
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