In our article of September 9, 2019, we discussed the characteristics of an ideal observer. The role of this imaginary being is to advise us on what, from a moral perspective, is the right way to act in a given situation, even if we remember to appeal to him. But it is a fact of experience that, when we find ourselves in a morally difficult situation, we often seek the advice of others. One of the specificities of the ideal observer is that he can be approached by imagination. And if his advice can have the value of oracles, it is because he is endowed with qualities such as knowledge of the facts relevant to the situation in question, the ability to reason well on the basis of these facts, and, of course, impartiality. This is why we can believe with relative confidence that “moral judgments are simply the judgments an ideal observer of this sort will make” (1). Entities close to the ideal observer have been discussed in philosophical literature and the social sciences: David Hume’s judicious spectator; Adam Smith’s impartial spectator (which is the subject of much more in-depth developments than Hume’s spectator); George Herbert Mead’s Generalised Other; and Sigmund Freud’s Superego. When these entities are supposed to represent society – that is, in terms of individual action, what would be appropriate to do in a given social setting –, they may enjoy a certain plausibility or realism. But when it comes to knowing what is morally appropriate to do, and not what is socially appropriate to accomplish, the plausibility of the entity in question becomes uncertain. For his oracles are no longer issued from a place that is easy to conceive, for example society, but from another place, the place where moral truths would reside. There is another possible place where the ideal observer could stay: the person himself, the one who is seeking moral advice. This (plausible) remark leads us to meta-ethical questions familiar to moral philosophers. They relate to objectivist and subjective conceptions of moral judgments. To consider the ideal observer as an extension, projection or idealisation of the one who calls upon him, seems to be typical of subjectivism understood in a general sense: “philosophical tendency to reduce any judgment of value or reality to individual acts or states of consciousness” (2). However, if the ideal observer is an extension, projection or idealisation of a person, a question prior to the subjective – objectivism debate arises: that of circularity. Roderick Firth, an advocate of an ideal observer theory, and whom we quoted in the previous article, uses the word several times (3). It is sufficient, he said, to argue, without explicitly stating it, that the ideal observer implements an appropriate standard of moral judgment to fall into the trap of circularity. Firth specifies here the nature of circular reasoning:
“Reasoning that, when traced backward from its conclusion, returns to that starting point, as one returns to a starting point when tracing a circle.” (4)
In the case of the ideal observer, the circularity (or vicious circle in which he finds himself) is as follows:
“The ‘ideal’ observer is ideal because she always makes proper judgments, those being defined as just those judgments the ideal observer would make.” (1)
Could a specific definition of an ideal observer avoid this circularity? Let us consider the following three possibilities, which aim to define such a character with minimal plausibility:
– either we endow the ideal observer with our personal ethical preferences in addition to rational characteristics, but we then make it the representative of our moral conceptions which, of course, may not be shared by everyone (this is the case we have just considered);
– or we make him the representative of all, or of society in general; but, in this case, the ideal observer is supposed to know all the preferences of the persons concerned, including their worldviews and ethical ideals; assuming that this is possible, the ideal observer should, in order to arrive at a moral judgment, make a utilitarian calculation based on the preferences of all, treating everyone equally, since he is (by definition) impartial;
– or we make him a purely rational being, whose decision-making procedures are logically indisputable.
The second and third possibilities seem to avoid the objection of circularity. But is that the case? Does the second not reduce society to a single being embodying everyone’s preferences, and defining the ideal observer as the sole representative of those who make up society? As for the third, if the reference to a purely rational being seems to be a guarantee of non-circularity (provided that one agrees on a definition of rationality), it faces a major difficulty. If he were a purely rational being, why would the ideal observer be interested in ethical issues? Because, as Bernard Williams says about impartiality, which we can read in the following quotation as summarising rationality:
“if the observer is not given some motivation in addition to his impartiality, there is no reason why he should choose anything at all” (5).
Thus, by losing circularity, we lose the proximity of the impartial observer and, in a way, his commitment to anyone. This looks very much like an aporia. Alain Anquetil (1) T. Jollimore, “Impartiality,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (2) A. Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 18th edition, Paris, PUF, 1996. (3) R. Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 12(3), 1952, pp. 317-345. (4) C. Godin, Dictionnaire de philosophie, Paris, Fayard / Editions du Temps, 2004. (5) B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 1985. [cite]