A Defense of Modest Ideal Observer Theory: The Case of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


I build on Adam Smith’s account of the impartial spectator in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in order to offer a modest ideal observer theory of moral judgment that is adequate in the following sense: the account specifies the hypothetical conditions that guarantee the authoritativeness of an agent’s (or agents’) responses in constituting the standard in question, and, if an actual agent or an actual community of agents are not under those conditions, their responses are not authoritative in setting this standard. However, in the account that I provide, the hypothetical conditions can themselves be constructed from the psychology and interactions of actual human beings. In other words, facts about the morally appropriate and inappropriate are determined from hypothetical conditions that––while agents in a given society might have yet to attain them––can be constructed from those agents’ shared experiences. Thus, the account offers both an attainable standard of moral judgment and a standard that can transcend the biases of the society which gave rise to it. I also defend the account against three challenges: (a) ideal observer theories do not offer the right kind of motivation to act on the verdicts of the ideal observer; (b) ideal observer theories cannot explain why the idealization in question is well-motivated and not objectionably ad hoc; (c) the standard used in ideal observer theories cannot be defended upon further reflection, because we would need a non-arbitrary, second-order standard to govern our reflection on the first-order standard of moral judgment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)489-510
Number of pages22
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Adam Smith
  • Anti-realism
  • Ideal observer
  • Impartial spectator
  • Naturalism
  • Response-dependence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'A Defense of Modest Ideal Observer Theory: The Case of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this