Journal of Business Ethics

, 91:127 | Cite as

Applying Rawlsian Approaches to Resolve Ethical Issues: Inventory and Setting of a Research Agenda



Insights from social science are increasingly used in the field of applied ethics. However, recent insights have shown that the empirical branch of business ethics lacks thorough theoretical grounding. This article discusses the use of the Rawlsian methods of wide reflective equilibrium and overlapping consensus in the field of applied ethics. Instead of focussing on one single comprehensive ethical doctrine to provide adequate guidance for resolving moral dilemmas, these Rawlsian methods seek to find a balance between considered judgments and intuitions concerning particular cases on the one hand and general principles and theories on the other. In business ethics this approach is promising because it enables decision-making in a pluralist context with different stakeholders who often endorse different or even conflicting cultural and moral frameworks without giving priority to any of them. Moreover, the method is well founded in political theory. A taxonomy of different kinds of applications is developed, and classified according to the purpose, the content, and the type of justification. On the basis of this taxonomy an inventory of 12 recent applications is made. In terms of the purpose and content of the method the applications are rather diverse. Two conceptual obstacles for applying Rawlsian methods are identified, viz. inclusiveness and the communitarian objection that people have to become detached from their personal life. It is found that methodological questions, such as the question how to retrieve the relevant empirical data, are scarcely addressed in the literature. To advance the use of empirical approaches in general, and that of Rawlsian approaches in particular, it is important not only to use empirical data but to use methodological insights from social sciences in order to further advance the field of empirical ethics. It is recommended that stakeholders be given a more active role in the assessment and justification of these methods.

Key words

applied ethics conflicting values ethical methodology justification overlapping consensus Rawls wide reflective equilibrium 



Wide reflective equilibrium


Overlapping consensus



This research is part of the research program “Moral Responsibility in R&D Networks”, which is supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) under grant number 360-20-160. I would like to thank the anonymous referees and Ibo van de Poel for reading an earlier draft of the present paper. The article has profited a lot from their comments and the helpful suggestions they provided.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Technology, Policy, and ManagementDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands

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