Ideal observer theory

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Ideal observer theory is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. 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".

This makes ideal observer theory arguably a subjectivist[2] yet universalist form of cognitivism, though arguably the abstract "ideal observer" may be seen as an objective reference point, thus making ideal observer theory a form of ethical objectivism. Ideal observer theory stands in opposition to other forms of ethical subjectivism (e.g.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.[3] 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.

Those proposing the ideal observer theory do not necessarily assert that any real ideal observers actually exist.


  1. ^ Brandt, Richard (1959). "Ethical Naturalism". Ethical Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. p. 173. LCCN 59010075.
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ Firth, Roderick (March 1952). "Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 12 (3): 317–345. JSTOR 2103988.

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