View Full Version : Ideal Observer

04-28-2009, 01:52 AM
From wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideal_observer_theory):

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.

I would add compassion for sentient beings, though, to address human relevance.

Maybe here we could discuss the limitations and value of this theory, contemplate it in terms of real or hypothetical situations...


Ruv Draba
04-28-2009, 04:38 AM
This sort of thinking is useful for rationalistic materialists like me, who don't accept received wisdom on moral issues. But it's not just your atheistic types who like such ideas; Einstein was something of a mystic and he liked it too (http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/moral.html)...
As far as I can see, there is one consideration which stands at the threshold of all moral teaching. If men as individuals surrender to the call of their elementary instincts, avoiding pain and seeking satisfaction only for their own selves, the result for them all taken together must be a state of insecurity, of fear, and of promiscuous misery. If, besides that, they use their intelligence from an individualist, i.e., a selfish standpoint, building up their life on the illusion of a happy unattached existence, things will be hardly better. In comparison with the other elementary instincts and impulses, the emotions of love, of pity and of friendship are too weak and too cramped to lead to a tolerable state of human society.

The solution of this problem, when freely considered, is simple enough, and it seems also to echo from the teachings of the wise men of the past always in the same strain: All men should let their conduct be guided by the same principles; and those principles should be such, that by following them there should accrue to all as great a measure as possible of security, satisfaction, and as small a measure as possible of suffering.

The question of whether a shared and benign morality can derive from striving for selfless observation reduces to the questions of whether such observation: a) is possible (how much can we separate self-interest from observation) and b) converges toward some ideal. The latter issue isn't whether such an ideal exists, but whether it converges to something optimally benign.

My belief is that historically it has and that for the forseeable future, it will continue to do so. A bit of evidence in support:

Where human misery is based on material circumstance we have made huge inroads into reducing it;
Where human misery is based on misunderstandings in personal relationships we are now better equipped than ever before to overcome those misunderstandings;
Humans are more literate, more multilingual, more multicultural than they have ever been;
Our knowledge of nonhuman psychology is better than it has ever been, and is now giving us a much more robust and integrated sense of place in nature. We no longer believe that humans are the only animals that use tools, use language, plan or have a sense of self. Rather, we increasingly see human psyche as part of a spectrum.
It's possible to conceive fictionally of cultures so hellishly inhuman that no amount of observation or understanding could create a common morality (e.g. 'evil alien cultures') but it's also possible to conceive of cultures which look like that but aren't -- and history is full of such misunderstandings.

In a philosophy of continuous, fact-based moral growth it's very hard to find a legitimate place for the concept of evil. Functionally, 'evil' becomes anything that sufficiently offends us, which we don't yet understand. It's hard to imagine that an ideal observer would at any stage be able to give a crisp, firm definition of evil though it's not at all hard to discern 'bad' (that which increases misery) from 'good' (that which decreases it).

What I'm not convinced of is that there's a single optimal notion of benign given a particular circumstance. I think that it's always possible to refine our morality, but at some stages we make value-judgements that define who are the more worthy recipients of compassion (e.g. children more than the elderly, the born more than the unborn, parents more than childless singles, women more than men, the employed more than the unemployed or vice versa). Ultimately, I feel that we can only be 'optimally benign' when we have such abundance that we don't need to play favourites.

Ruv Draba
04-28-2009, 05:30 AM
I would add compassion for sentient beings, though, to address human relevance.We need to be a little careful about compassion because it potentially encompasses both material reality and our perception of that.

It is easy for people in circumstances of plenty to be utterly miserable; it's also not unknown for people in adversity to be at peace.

If compassion is alloyed of empathy (understanding how someone else feels) and sympathy (seeing it from their perspective) then we need to balance that somehow with dispassion (seeing it from some external perspective), else an ideal observer could never discern now from later, or how something is from how someone feels about it.

That reconciliation -- compassion with dispassion -- I feel is necessary in any practical moral system, and it's critical when you need to balance competing needs with limited resources. But what's not straightforward is how to reconcile the two. Ethics come into play here and not just morality. The question of 'what is good' seems inseparable to me from the question of 'what do we owe one another'.

06-17-2009, 03:56 AM
being disinterest and dispassionate does not seem, to me, to be consistent with have empathy which is a passion based on interest.

06-17-2009, 07:41 AM
to be consistent with have empathy which is a passion based on interest.

First I disagree that's what empathy is. But for the sake of argument, that might be the case but the observer would be impartial and so be able to empathize with anyone equally. Like a judge that again ideally can empathize and understand one's emotion and yet remain impartial and dispassionate in the sense that they overall have an actual distance from the situation. Such a distance might not be possible in human terms, except as...well, an ideal.