Introduction to moral justification

Justification is key in any intellectual enterprise aiming for reliability. As scientists seek to justify claims about the empirical world, ethicists seek to justify claims about its moral dimension. In this text, I explain the basics of moral justification. I suggest that the text ”Introduction to ethics” is read first.

It should be noted that I argue in favor of one particular approach to moral justification, namely reflective equilibrium. Therefore, this text should not be uncritically read.

Justification and truth

To justify a claim is to propose convincing reasons in favor of it. For instance, the claim that the earth is round is justified because there are strong reasons supporting it, such as results from experiments, mathematical calculations, and accounts from people who have been to space and observed the shape of our planet.

Claims must not be true to be justified. Claims of truth and claims of justification belong to different categories. Consider, for instance, physics before the revolution of the theory of relativity.

People in the 17th through 19th century were justified in basing their claims about physical bodies in motion on Isaac Newton’s mechanics.1 They had sufficient reason to think and act as if Newton’s mechanics were globally valid, although later generations of theoretical physicists have learned that some of those claims were not actually true. Therefore, later generations are not justified in basing some claims on Newton’s mechanics; more precisely, mainly claims about things at very small scale or at very high velocities. Among other things, contemporary theoretical physicists must take Einstein’s theory of relativity in to account.

Thus, claims may be justified in spite of the fact that they are not true. This is not always the case. In mathematics, for instance, it is not justified to claim that 2+2=5, simply because it is false. Mathematics is an intellectual enterprise in which justification and truth are more closely connected than what they are in most other cases. In the empirical sciences, such as medicine, biology, and economics, justification concerns reason-giving rather than truth. This is also the case in the humanities, such as history, literature, and philosophy; in these fields, professionals aim to provide convincing reasons in favor of particular views.

This does not mean that there are no truths in these fields. Obviously, there are truths about, for instance, how the human body functions, i.e., biology, and who murdered the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, i.e., history. The argument here is merely that claims about some things may be justified in spite of the fact that the truth is unknown.

Justification in ethics

Moral claims are claims about value. Examples of moral claims include, ”it is wrong to cheat on one’s partner,” ”a political order in which a ruling elite enjoys special privileges is not just,” and ”you should give her a present!” They reflect values and value judgments that conflict with other values and value judgments. The conflicting claims, ”cheating is okay,” ”feodalism is just,” and ”she does not deserve a present,” are also feasible.

These are claims in normative ethics. As such, they can be evaluated in terms of justification, meaning that reasons supporting either view can be assessed in relation to each other to provide a balanced judgment in favor of one alternative above the other.

There are also claims about claims about value, namely so-called claims in metaethics. One example is, ”it is just a matter of subjective opinion whether cheating is wrong.” This is a claim about the nature of the claim ”cheating is wrong,” and it can also be evaluated in terms of justification. I believe that claims about value, and claims about claims about value, should be justified in the same way. That is, I do not think that the methods of justification vary between different sub-disciplines in ethics.

As I see things, there are two main approaches to justification in ethics; foundationalism and coherentism. I will explain them here, beginning with the former.


As the term ”foundationalism” suggests, its supporters hold that claims in ethics are justified if they build on some non-inferential base, such as indubitable beliefs or self-evident propositions. Some would say that it is an axiomatic view on justification.

One famous foundationalist in the history of philosophy is René Descartes (1596–1650). In his philosophy, Descartes explored skepticism. He set out to find something which one cannot be skeptic about, that is, something the existence of which cannot be doubted. When this something had been found, Descartes argued, it can provide a solid foundation for knowledge to build on. After some argumentation, Descartes found that one cannot be skeptical about one’s own existence. His conclusion is often summarized as ”cogito ergo sum,” or ”I think, therefore I am.” After having found this absolute base for knowledge to build on, Descartes proceeded to construct a philosophical system which, in his view, was as reliable as the conviction one may have that one exists.

Later philosophers have argued Descartes’s thesis can be proven false. The fact that the thought ”I exist” appears in the world does not imply that the ”I” it refers to does in fact exist; the thought ”I exist” can be prompted by, for instance, chemical reactions or a computer program that creates an identity ”I” which is not real. Therefore, the argument goes, Descartes’s philosophical system lacks an absolute foundation.

There may be things that are absolute in the Cartesian sense. Yet, even so, it is not necessarily the case that they can be foundational for justificatory purposes. That is, it may be certain that A, but also that B, C, and D cannot build on it with retained certainty. These are difficult problems for foundationalists. Some would argue that they are impossible to overcome, and that justification in ethics therefore requires a different approach.


In coherentism, which is the main alternative to foundationalism, justification concerns coherence between various independently dubitable beliefs. One belief A is justified to the extent that it is consistent with other beliefs BC, and D, which in turn are justified to the extent they are likewise consistent.

This implies that justification does not require certainty of particular beliefs. The moral claim that, for instance, ”cheating is wrong,” is justified in spite of the fact that there may be some uncertainty regarding whether the claim is universally valid. The reason why it is justified is that it is consistent with other relevant beliefs, such as moral beliefs about trust and mutual obligations, and factual beliefs about social relationships and psychology.

Thus, coherentists are not concerned with absolut certainty, but only coherence. This implies that a coherent set of beliefs providing justification for a certain claim can be mistaken. It may, for instance, be the case that it is a coherent set of prejudices.

Some would argue that this is a major drawback to coherentism as a theory of justification, but I think that the argument is weak. Yes, I would agree, a coherent set of beliefs may be mistaken. But, the anti-coherentist argument, ”it is a serious problem to coherentism that it provides justification for sets of ungrounded prejudices,” is foundationalist. It posits a requirement of absolute certainty which, for good reasons, is not feasible; it should be clear from the discussion above that it is difficult to find and use absolute certainty in justificatory purposes—that is one of the main reasons why coherentism is at all attractive. Thus, this anti-coherentist argument may therefore be discarded.

Instead, to deal with the problem that a set of beliefs may in fact be a coherent set of prejudices, I suggest that coherentism should include the requirement of constant re-assessment of existing beliefs. No belief in one’s system of thought is ever immune to re-evaluation. On the contrary, for reasons of justification, it should be an integral part of one’s intellectual enterprises to continuously subject one’s own convictions to critical scrutiny. That is, or should be, a cornerstone of coherentism.

Reflective equilibrium

I adhere to a coherentist theory of moral justification which is commonly known as reflective equilibrium.2 Reflective equilibrium is the end-state of a deliberative process of moral inquiry, and also the name of the process itself, i.e., a method of moral inquiry.

As a theory of moral justification, reflective equilibrium is the theory that a moral claim is reason-giving if it is coherent with all other beliefs (in moral and non-moral matters) and with our stable and considered moral intuitions. For instance, the claim, “ceteris paribus, people who suffer should be helped,” is justified not because it is true, but because it is coherent with all other beliefs and with our moral intuitions.

Among other things, moral reasons vary in strength and in relevance. The strength of a moral reason is relative to other elements in the equilibrium, not relative to some independent scale of measure. For instance, relieving suffering is sometimes a reason to intervene with a person’s decisions, but respecting her autonomy is sometimes a reason to not intervene. A judgment on whether to intervene with the person’s decisions is justified to the extent that it is balanced, taking all moral reasons, beliefs, and intuitions in consideration.

That is, in brief terms, reflective equilibrium as an end-state of a deliberative process in which moral claims are justified. But, it is common for the term to designate the deliberative process itself, i.e., a method of moral inquiry.

As a method, reflective equilibrium is the deliberative process of reflecting on and revising moral judgments (and judgments related to them). In that process, empirical facts, risks and uncertainties, critical self-reflections of possible biases and other cognitive misbehaviors, and so on, must be taken into account. The process is goal-driven. It aims to seek a considered judgment on the matter at hand, i.e., a reflective equilibrium as an end-state, and is thus a process which is intended to identify what is reason-giving in a particular case or regarding a particular problem.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, claims of justification and claims of truth usually belong to separate categories. I have here mainly been concerned with the former. As I see things, the methods of justification do not vary between sub-disciplines in ethics. In my view, all claims of a moral nature should be justified with reference to reflective equilibrium, which is a coherentist theory of justification.

My view is theory-dependent and should be critically read. It includes the judgment that it should be an integral part of one’s intellectual enterprises to continuously subject one’s own convictions to critical scrutiny. That is a cornerstone of justification in ethics, and likely also elsewhere.


1 This example is from my yet unpublished PhD thesis.

2 This section builds on my yet unpublished PhD thesis.

Cite as: Ahlin, J. (2018). Introduction to moral justification. Retrieved (date) from: