The Moral Sentiments of the Ideal Observer

Dissertation, University of California, Irvine (1996)

The focus of this dissertation is a kind of moral theory variously called sentimentalism, moral sense theory, or ideal observer ethics. That these labels all name a single theory-type is part of what I try to show. Beyond the identity claim, however, I wish to work out an example of this kind of view, using as inspiration Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments . ;In the opening chapter, I give some motivation for moral sense theory, explaining how it treats moral values by analogy with secondary qualities such as color. In Chapter 2, I review the historical career of the color analogy and the views it has inspired. In Chapter 3, I present and defend an interpretation of Smith, contrasting his ideas with those of Francis Hutcheson and especially David Hume. I also show why a misunderstanding of ideal observer theory underlies the common view that Smith's impartial spectator is very different from Roderick Firth's ideal observer. Having reconstructed Smith's moral theory, I then consider, in Chapter 4, what our current best understanding of human nature can tell us about the plausibility of this theory. Here I draw on considerations of survival fitness and also on contemporary psychological investigation by such people as Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, and C. Daniel Batson. My conclusion is that the verdict on Smith's theory is equivocal. ;Within the framework of an ideal observer theory, there are objective facts about morality just as there are objective facts about color. However, it may be that in the end there is no point in asking whether Smith's view, judged from the outside, is a true account of the nature of morality. In the last chapter, I discuss the sense in which a choice of moral theory might have a pragmatic basis, and I consider how sentimentalist/ideal-observer moral theory fares when judged by a pragmatic standard
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