Firth’s Ideal Observer Theory suggests that an ethical statement like “x is right” means, “any Ideal observer would react to x” (Firth, P. 209) by producing an alpha reaction. The following are the characteristics of an Ideal Observer: Omniscient with respect to the non-moral facts, omnipercipient, disinterested, dispassionate, consistent and “normal”. In this essay, I will attempt to explain and justify why opposition to the “omniscience” characteristic is the most powerful objection to the Ideal Observer Theory, while construing possible rebuttals for Firth. To begin with, Firth made “omniscient with respect to non-ethical facts” a characteristic of an Ideal Observer because “we regard one person as a better moral judge than another if, other things being equal, the one has a larger amount of relevant factual knowledge than the other.” (Firth, 1970: P. 212) Also, Firth specified about being omniscient with respect to non-ethical facts seeing that rational procedures are vital to an Ideal Observer for deciding ethical questions, but “there are many ethical questions which cannot be decided by inference from ethical premises” (Firth, P. 213), meaning that ethical facts are not essential, while non-ethical facts are. As mentioned before, the larger amount of relevant factual knowledge one possesses enables him to be regarded as a better moral judge. If so, then why did Firth make the Ideal Observer omniscient when grasping all the relevant facts is adequate? This is because Firth believes that the notion of relevance cannot be “employed in defining an ideal observer,” (Firth, P.213) as, by pointing out that some facts are irrelevant, we will also be specifying that an Ideal Observer’s alpha reaction would be the same whether or not he possesses such facts. As an entailment, “in order to explain what we mean by relevant knowledge, we should have to employ the very concept of Ideal observer which we are attempting to define.” (Firth, P. 212) In other words, to identify what facts are relevant would make the theory circular. Therefore, Firth just allows the ideal observer to have all knowledge (omniscient), as “there is no other practicable way of specifying which facts a person must know in order to know all the ethically relevant facts, without circularity" (Brandt, P.410). Plus, there does not seem to be anything wrong with including this extra knowledge. As the reasons why Firth made the Ideal Observer omniscient are demonstrated, it would be interesting to look at the objections against this characteristic of his theory. To begin with, objectors might argue that the feature of omniscience is not compatible with human beings. They would say that it is impossible for a person to learn all facts or grasp all knowledge, unless he is a god. Therefore, such a requirement for Firth’s theory would entail that there are actually no Ideal Observers at all. However, Firth could possibly reply by saying that it is metaphysically possible for a human to grasp all knowledge. Currently, human beings have only used up 3% of their brains capacity, so you cannot deny that there is the possibility that human beings can comprehend the truth of all propositions. Perhaps all the knowledge combined will not be able to use up the full capacity of the brain. Plus, one cannot deny the possibility that god can create an omniscient human being. Against such a reply, people would say that the creation of an omniscient human being is impossible because a finite brain cannot grasp an infinite number of propositions. Since Firth had wrote in his article “omniscience implies complete knowledge of the past as well as the future”. (Firth, P. 213) The future is infinite, propositions in the future are also infinite, and therefore eventually it will reach a point where the finite brain will no longer be able to take in additional propositions. To refute such a counterargument, Firth would probably say that it is possible for god to create...
References: Brandt, Richard. (1950) "The Definition of an 'Ideal Observer ' Theory in Ethics,"
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, XV, 414-421.
Firth, R. (1970). “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer”. In W. Sellars & J.Hospers
(Eds.), Readings in Ethical Theory (pp. 200 – 221). Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Martin, M.R. (2010). Theories of Morality: Lecture Notes for Topic 7 (Ethical
absolutism and the Ideal Observer Theory.)
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