Virtues, Ideal Observers, and the Foundations of Normativity

Dissertation, Brown University (2001)

Jason Kawall
Colgate University
The central claim of this dissertation is that the most plausible form of virtue theory will incorporate a number of features from an ideal observer theory, and vice versa. Virtue theorists in ethics and epistemology often characterize the virtues as those traits required for a good human life, and right action in terms of the behaviour of virtuous persons. I argue that while such positions are mistaken , a related form of ideal observer theory can capture the virtue theorists' insights. The core of my dissertation lies in developing a unified metaethical/epistemological/aesthetic theory which grounds normative properties in the judgements of ideal observers. Thus, for example, an action is morally right if and only if a virtuous ideal observer would declare it to be so. These ideal observers are identified by their possession of characteristics considered ideal by a class of semi-ideal observers, who are in turn identified by their possession of traits considered ideal by psychologically healthy humans. ;Instead of appealing to human nature, we make direct appeal to our ideals---the factors which give human nature theories much of their initial plausibility. On the other hand, our ideals reflect our human needs, our way of life, etc. They are grounded in human nature and thus of interest to us, capturing a further insight from human nature theory. Like standard ideal observer theories we arrive at a metatheory which provides an attractive blend of cognitivism, while avoiding commitment to 'queer' normative facts in the world. But the ideal observers we appeal to are much more fully characterized than standard ideal observers---their characteristics are grounded in human ideals, thus providing a basis for the judgements of the ideal observers, and providing us with reason to abide by their judgements. I motivate and develop this procedure for deriving ideal observers, consider objections to the approach, and show how the theory improves upon traditional virtue and ideal observer theories
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