Ideal Observer Theories of Ethics

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The ideal observer theory (IOT) offers an account of the truth/objectivity of moral judgments in terms of the approval or disapproval of an ideal observer. The theory receives explicit treatment by Adam Smith and Henry Sidgwick; Roderick Firth is the most well-known proponent of the theory in the twentieth century.

There are two versions of the theory. On one account the IOT is an analysis of what (some, all) moral judgments mean: A judgment that some act (or event or state of character) is good may be analyzed in terms of that act being approved of by an ideal observer (IO); some act is wrong if it would be disapproved of by an IO. Most, but not all, such accounts conceive of the IO in hypothetical terms, leaving open the question of whether there actually is an IO. The traits of the IO vary between ethical theories, but they often include impartiality, knowledge of all of what may be called nonmoral facts (facts that may be conceived of and known without ipso facto knowing the moral status of the fact), and an affective awareness of the points of view of all involved parties. The reason for employing a term such as nonmoral facts is to avoid an explicit circularity, for the theory must be more informative than claiming that some act is morally right if and only if it would be approved of by a being who is omniscient with respect to all moral facts.

While strong versions of the IO theory offer an analysis of what moral rightness and wrongness mean, moderate proposals hold that the IO point of view amounts to an analysis of the moral point of view; that is, the point of view from which ideal moral judgments are made. On this account, what it means for persons to carry out an inquiry into the moral status of some act is to engage in an inquiry aimed at achieving impartiality, knowledge of the relevant nonmoral facts, and an affective awareness of the points of view of all involved parties. Arguably, these conditions might be both necessary and sufficient for moral inquiry, and yet the IOT would not amount to an analysis of what it means for some act to be right.

Both versions are subject to objections. Against both accounts philosophers have questioned the feasibility and desirability of impartiality. IO accounts that appeal to the hypothetical responses of an IO face a problem in terms of moral psychology; someone making a moral judgment about some act need have no interest in the responses of some other, hypothetical observer. There is also the recurrent charge against both versions that the theory is circular. They build into the concept of an IO the notion that the observer is in fact ideal; being impartial, for example, is a positive moral ideal. If so, the theories presuppose a moral ideal and so cannot be used to analyze what it is to be morally ideal. Some argue that neither account is able to avoid conflict between IOs or those seeking the moral point of view. There is also the charge that both accounts fail because it is coherent to claim that an IO or one who achieves the ideal moral point of view may get matters wrong.

The first two objections may be played against each other. Evidence that philosophers disagree about the moral desirability of impartiality is evidence that impartiality is not an obvious moral ideal. If the case against the moral desirability of impartiality is successful, the IO theory will need amending to allow for specific, partial duties and goods. Some versions of the IO theory have been articulated that accommodate the thesis that IOs disagree (Thomas Carson 1984), while others argue that there is no reason to suppose that there would be disagreement (Charles Taliaferro 1988).

There have been several replies to the charge that IOs or those taking the ideal moral point of view may be wrong. Some link the IO theory with a divine command theory according to which moral rightness and wrongness is constitutive of an actual IO's God's approval and disapproval. The apparent coherence of there being something approved of by God that is morally wrong is accommodated the way in which some philosophers accommodate the apparent possibility that one might have water without H20.

On behalf of using the second, modest form of the IO theory, it has also been charged that the following state of affairs is incoherent. A person morally disapproves of some act but she believes that if she were an IO she would approve of the act. According to the moderate version of the theory, the person disapproves of the act but simultaneously believes that she would reverse her view if she were actually impartial, knew more of the relevant nonmoral facts, and had an affective understanding of the points of view of those affected. Arguably, when we disapprove of some act morally, we often allow the possibility that we may not be impartial, we may be ignorant of the nonmoral facts, and we may lack an awareness of the feelings of those involved, but it would be peculiar for a person to disapprove of an act while believing that one is actually mistaken about the nonmoral facts, and so on.

See also Ethical Subjectivism; Metaethics; Objectivity in Ethics; Sidgwick, Henry; Smith, Adam.


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Carson, Thomas. The Status of Morality. Boston, MA: Reidel, 1984.

Carson, Thomas. Value and the Good Life. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

Firth, Roderick. "Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952): 317345.

Frankena, William. Ethics. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

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Zagzebski, Linda. Divine Motivation Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Charles Taliaferro (2005)