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Saturday, July 23, 2022

Concrete Over Abstract: Experimental Evidence of Reflective Equilibrium in Population Ethics

Schoenegger, P. & Grodeck, B. 
(forthcoming). In H. Viciana, F. Aguiar, 
& A. Gaitan (Eds.), Issues in Experimental Moral 
Philosophy. Routledge.

One central method of ethics is narrow reflective equilibrium, relating to the conflict between intuitions about general moral principles and intuitions about concrete cases. In these conflicts, general principles are refined, or judgements in concrete chases change to accommodate the until no more conflicts exist. In this paper, we present empirical data on this method in the context of population ethics. We conduct an online experiment (n=543) on Prolific where participants endorse a number of moral principles related to population ethics. They also judge specific population ethical cases that may conflict with their endorsed principles. When conflicts arise, they can choose to revoke the principle, revise their intuition about a case, or continue without having resolved the conflict. We find that participants are significantly more likely to revoke their endorsements of general principles, than their judgements about concrete cases. This evidence suggests that for a lay population, case judgements play a central revisionary role in reflective equilibrium reasoning in the context of population ethics.


Our main result is that when participants’ choices result in a conflict between their endorsed abstract principles and their judgements on concrete cases, they prefer to revoke their previously endorsed principle rather than changing or revoking their judgement regarding the concrete population ethical case. Our findings are relevant to theorizing of reflective equilibrium.  Specifically, we take these results to indicate that for lay moral reasoning, case judgements do play a major revisionary role. While we find that some participants want to maintain consistency with the abstract principles, the evidence shows that participants do put more weight on their concrete choices. 


As a secondary interest, we also tested whether presenting participants with the abstract principles first and then the concrete cases or the reverse changes their endorsement rates of these principles. We found no statistically significant effects in the Control, Person Affectism, or Pareto, though for both versions of Utilitarianism we did find order effects. This drop in endorsement rates provides further evidence for the case above that once participants are presented with some concrete cases that they can form judgements on, they are less likely to endorse the principles (and if they already endorsed them, more likely to revoke their endorsement). This adds to both the literature on order effects in social psychology and experimental philosophy, as well as to our understanding of folk utilitarian morality.