In this post Ambrose Lee, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the Centre for Criminology, whose research lies at the intersections between legal, political and moral philosophy, considers the role of empirical research in the kind of research that he does:

As a normative theorist working in a centre with a field of research that has such a strong empirical component, I am always confronted with the question of what role, if any, should ‘public opinion’ play in the kind of normative theoretical work that I do. Two contrasting positions usually present themselves here.

On the one hand, one might hold that public opinion has no proper role whatsoever. This is because normative theoretical work stands on its own. It has its own foundations. It is grounded in well-established normative theories; theories that many in the past have spent lifetimes thinking about, and which have been refined through ‘rigorous’ debates spanning generations. Insofar as we are drawing conclusions validly from all these normative theories, then the work we do stand apart from public opinion, if not even stand above it altogether.

This position will probably strike one  as rather extreme. It sees normative theorizing as akin to intuiting some platonic forms residing in the intelligible world; a world that is not only separate and independent from our physical corporeal world, but indeed transcends it.

In light of this, one might therefore be tempted to the opposite extreme, and eschew normative theorizing altogether. If there is any answer to the question of what is good or bad, what is right or wrong, what should or should not be done etc. it is not to be found by gleaning into the intelligible world. Since, pace Plato, there is no such a world. Rather, the answers are all to be found in public opinion - the actual opinions of those who actually live in our physical corporeal world.

Both of the positions, however, are implausible, not just because they are too extreme, but in part also because they are too simple: each of them favour one, be it public opinion or the independence of normative theorizing, to the utter exclusion of the other. Their mere simplicity should already warn us of their implausibility; since whether we are doing abstract theorizing or concrete empirical studies, things are seldom so simple. Why should the relationship between normative theorizing and public opinion be any different?

Of course, what I have outlined above are more like caricatures of the two positions; and each deserves a critical discussion in their own right which is beyond that which can be afforded here. Indeed, insofar as the second position is motivated by a general moral scepticism, we are taken into a totally different ball game.

Rather than focusing on these two extreme positions, let us therefore explore a third one. One that lies in between these two extremes, and is therefore sometimes referred to as a compromise. Indeed, it has been referred to as such in a previous post, and that is the position known as ‘reflective equilibrium’; but what exactly is it?

‘Reflective equilibrium’ is a term used by John Rawls, most famously in his A Theory of Justice, to refer to the way in which we should proceed in thinking about normative issues, such that we would arrive at normative claims that are justifiable. It is therefore not advanced merely as a compromise between the kinds of extreme positions mentioned above.

Put very generally and with great simplification, this position asks us to take our normative theories on the one hand, and our everyday normative intuitions (e.g. public opinion) on the other, and see whether they are all consistent with each other. For every instance where they are not, we need to make a choice to either revise (or even reject) the normative theory in question, or the relevant normative intuition. We then repeat the whole process again with each of the revisions, and so on and so forth. A reflective equilibrium is finally reached when we have suitably revised all our normative theories and intuitions such that they all cohere with each other.

Contra the remarks of some, the position of reflective equilibrium has nothing to do with democratic legitimacy, neither does it involve ‘embracing public opinion when it agrees with us, and swiftly kicking it away when it does not’.

It has nothing to do with the former, because it does not restrict itself only to the normative issues that are subject to democratic legitimacy. Rather, it purports to be the proper way to proceed when thinking about normative issues, be it a matter of public policy, or within our private lives.

It also does not involve the latter, because it does not merely ask us to draw sound conclusions from our normative theories; and then in the face of public opinion say, “take it or leave it”.  Rather, even in instances where the normative theory in question and the relevant public opinion cohere, we still need to ask whether that is for the same reason (since different reasons might lead to a conflict elsewhere); and whether they as a whole constitute the best explanation for the normative judgment in question.

Indeed, we need to do even more of all this in instances where normative theory and public opinion conflict. This is because the position of reflective equilibrium itself does not dictate whether we should stand firm on the normative theory in question and revise the relevant public opinion, vice versa or even revise both of them altogether, when they so happen to conflict with each other. Rather, we are asked to choose which side to stand firm on and which side to revise; and we can only do so properly by asking what are the reasons behind the conflict, whether either side has any reasons, considerations or distinctions that have yet to be made explicit or have failed to account for; and even if there are, we still need to see how they cohere with wider normative theories and the rest of public opinion etc., before we can properly decide which side, if any, to stand firm on and which side to revise.

Thus to characterize the position of reflective equilibrium merely as ‘embracing public opinion when it agrees with us, and swiftly kicking it away when it does not’, is to rob it of the kind of complexity and richness that it intends to capture from our normative theorizing, and erroneously reduce it to the same level of simplicity as the two extreme positions outlined earlier.

One might nevertheless object to the position of reflective equilibrium as insufficiently action-guiding. This is because the position itself does not dictate which side to stand firm on, and which side to revise or abandon, when normative theories and public opinion conflict. But why should we expect it to be otherwise?

As I have tried to emphasize all along, it is a matter of substantive judgement which side we should take, and which side to revise, how and to what extent, when normative theories and public opinion conflict. We need to look at the details of each conflict, their particularities, the reasons that lie behind them and how well they cohere with the wider background in which they are embedded, etc.  There is therefore no reason to think that we can dictate in advance what exactly should be done here.

This also implies that when it comes to thinking about normative issues, we cannot help but to get our hands dirty. We need to uncover, get into, and critically appraise the details and the substance of the debate, be it on the side of normative theories or on the side of public opinion. It is therefore a mistake (perhaps spurred by moments of akrasia) to think that we can shield ourselves from all this hard work when thinking about normative issues, by expecting some principle we can merely appeal to which somehow can make the substantive judgements for us.

Finally, for those who are interested, there is a good introductory piece on the reflective equilibrium by Norman Daniels on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.