Discovery, Justification & Reflective Equilibrium


In a 2000 paper entitled The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics, scholar Robert van Es, a Professor at the University of Amsterdam along with Tiemo L. Meijlink, proposed the idea of using both a pragmatic and dialogic approach to public relations ethics to create a simple and practical meta-ethical solution for PR professionals.

In order to achieve this, van Es and Meijlink suggested the idea of combining the mental models of discovery and justification[i].

The context of discovery v. The context of justification


Originally used in the study of science, the context of discovery and justification was a model used to distinguish the difference between empirical knowledge versus claims of knowledge and their veracity[ii].

The notion gained prominence in 1938 though when famed empirical philosopher Hans Reichenbach further distinguished the differences within the model.

According to Reichenbach, the difference between these two paradigms lay solely within the ability to distinguish the objective relationship between a premise and its conclusion and the subjective means that were used to discover the relationship[iii].

While the mental model proposed by Reichenbach became widely accepted, others such as noted scientific philosopher and scholar Thomas Kuhn flatly rejected the idea.

Kuhn felt that distinction between the two models was not clear, leaving room for the combination of both models to work in conjunction with one another and not in isolation as previously suggested[iv].

Contemporary Ethics – Discovery v. Justification


The modern meta-ethical framework of discovery and justification[v] proposed follows in Kuhn’s footsteps by proposing a combination of both models.

The model of discovery**[vi]** as it pertains to public relations ethics is broken down into the three separate categories of personal ethics, professional ethics and public ethics.

Personal Ethics – moral reflection as developed in an individual’s personal life through introspection and interaction, with a focus on responsibility for self.


Professional Ethics – moral reflection as developed through an organization or place of employment or more broadly through a chosen profession; this ethical model is defined as a process through which individuals can deepen their understanding of the organization and its decision-making process.


Public Ethicsmoral reflection is developed through public debate and discussion, with a focus on socio-political and environmental responsibility.


Within this context, scholars believe it isn’t possible to separate or stop these three fields from interacting[vii].

The contemporary philosophical model of justification[viii] is more complex.

To scholars, the decision-making process behind making an ethical or moral decision is known as entering the mental model of moral justification**[ix]**.

While there are various decision-making models within the realm of ethical philosophy, the most well-known of these is the method of reflective equilibrium.

Reflective Equilibrium


Originating with famed philosopher, John Rawls the process of reflective equilibrium has been further developed by modern scholars with the aim of addressing tough moral problems within today’s business environment.

Rawls first introduced the notion as a means of developing and evaluating principles of justice, within the context of organizations and institutions[x]. Within this context, Rawls defines the process of reflective equilibrium as a means to examine moral beliefs at various levels and “test” the validity of an individuals’ beliefs by constantly challenging and refining the details of this belief system through critical analysis.

Within this process, the four elements that contribute to the process of reflective equilibrium includes: morally relevant facts, intuition, principles and ideals[xi].

Within this process then, justification[xii]as defined by Rawls, is the means of persuasion through which individuals convince themselves and others, of the validity and relevance of their moral beliefs[xiii].

For the purpose of modern public relations ethics, reflective equilibrium as part of the model of justification is a means to ensure that all of the various parts or perspectives of an issue are considered, in order to ensure a balanced and moral decision is made[xiv].

One of the most vocal critics of this theory, contemporary American philosopher Norman Daniels worried that the process of reflective equilibrium was too biased. He felt that the theory conveniently brought together generalized notions, without subjecting them to a detailed analysis while at the same time molding these beliefs to meet an individual or organization’s needs.


[i] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[ii] Steinle, F & Schickore, J. (n.d.) Discovery and Justification: Revisiting a Precarious Distinction. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Retrieved from: http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/projects/projects/Steinle_discovery
[iii] Reichenbach, Hans. (1938) Experience and Prediction. An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iv] Kuhn, Thomas (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[v]Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[vi] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[vii] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[viii] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[ix] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[x] Rawls, J (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[xi]Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.
[xii]Rawls, J (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[xiii] van der Burg, W. & van Willigenburg, T. (1998) Reflective Equilibrium: Essays in Honour of Robert Heeger, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.
[xiv] Van Es, R & Meijlink, T.L. (2000) The Dialogical Turn of Public Relations Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 27(1/2), 69 – 77.