Ideal observer theory
Ideal observer theory is the meta-ethical view which claims that:
- Ethical sentences express propositions.
- Some such propositions are true.
- Those propositions are about the attitudes of a hypothetical ideal observer.
In other words, ideal observer theory states that ethical judgments should be interpreted as statements about the judgments that a neutral and fully informed observer would make; "x is good" means "an ideal observer would approve of x".
|“||The main idea [of the ideal observer theory] is that ethical terms should be defined after the pattern of the following example: "x is better than y" means "If anyone were, in respect of x and y, fully informed and vividly imaginative, impartial, in a calm frame of mind and otherwise normal, he would prefer x to y.||”|
This makes ideal observer theory a subjectivist yet universalist form of cognitivism. Ideal observer theory stands in opposition to other forms of ethical subjectivism (e.g. divine command theory, moral relativism, and individualist ethical subjectivism), as well as to moral realism (which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of anyone's attitudes or opinions), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all).
While Adam Smith and David Hume are recognized to have espoused early versions of the ideal observer theory, Roderick Firth is responsible for starting a more sophisticated modern version. According to Firth, an ideal observer has the following specific characteristics: omniscience with respect to nonmoral facts, omnipercipience, disinterestedness, dispassionateness, consistency, and normalcy in all other respects. Notice that, by defining an Ideal Observer as omniscient with respect to nonmoral facts, Firth avoids circular logic that would arise from defining an ideal observer as omniscient in both nonmoral and moral facts. A complete knowledge of morality is not born of itself but is an emergent property of Firth's minimal requirements. There are also sensible restrictions to the trait of omniscience with respect to nonmoral facts. For instance, a geological event in another solar system is hardly something necessary to know to make a moral judgment about a case of theft or murder on Earth.
The validity of the ideal observer theory does not rest on the condition of any real ideal observers actually existing.
- Brandt, Richard (1959). "Ethical Naturalism". Ethical Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. p. 173. LCCN 59075.
- Brandt 1959, p. 153: "[Objectivism and subjectivism] have been used more vaguely, confusedly, and in more different senses than the others we are considering. We suggest as a convenient usage, however, that a theory be called subjectivist if and only if, according to it, any ethical assertion implies that somebody does, or somebody of a certain sort under certain conditions would, take some specified attitude toward something."
- Firth's main work on this is set out in the article 'Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer', from Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (3):317-345