Intuitions about Cases and Principles: A Defense of Reflective Equilibrium

  • Author / Creator
    Galan Tames, Francisco
  • Ethical reasoning in normative and practical ethics is typically conducted by working back and forth between intuitions about both general moral principles (e.g., suffering is bad) and particular cases (e.g., that I must prevent a specific person from suffering). These two types of intuitions—which I refer to as principle-intuitions and case-intuitions—are fundamental tools that ethicists unavoidably use to answer ethical questions. However, principle-intuitions and case-intuitions often conflict: a principle such as lying is wrong could be inconsistent with the intuition that it is permissible to lie to the Nazis to save some refugees. What should one do when conflicts like these arise? Should one give more weight to the principle-intuition, to the case-intuition, or equally to both? Or could it be that there is, in fact, no justificatory relation between the two elements but a different one? For example, perhaps case-intuitions only serve to help us clarify or suggest plausible principles but not justify principles themselves? Although the question of how should case-intuitions weight against principle-intuitions underlies almost any ethical deliberation and debate in normative and practical ethics, there is no universally-accepted answer to it. In other words, there is no unanimous agreement on what our ethical methodology should be. Thus, this thesis seeks to contribute to the literature by arguing in favor of one version of the most commonly-used method: reflective equilibrium. Among other things, reflective equilibrium holds that, all else being equal, case-intuitions carry the same epistemic weight as principle-intuitions. The first part of this thesis (Chapters 1-2) offers an argument in favor of reflective equilibrium. This argument seeks to establish reflective equilibrium as the default methodology in a way that, I believe, has not been articulated in the literature, although it arrives at similar conclusions as those of other supporters of this method. My claim is that we have reason to give credence to both case-intuitions and principle-intuitions because a) we should give credence to a judgment if it seems plausible to us, b) both cases and principles can seem plausible to us to an equal degree, and c) there is no reason at the outset of inquiry to think that case-intuitions are unreliable in a systematic way. The second part of the thesis (Chapters 3-4) offers a reply to two objections that have been raised against reflective equilibrium. Chapter 3 addresses whether case-intuitions are systematically unreliable due to their evolutionary, cultural, social, and emotional influences. Chapter 4 examines whether case-intuitions are unreliable because they change in response to morally irrelevant features, such as the wording of a case, the force of habit, or the emotions we might experience while thinking about a case.

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  • Degree
    Master of Arts
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