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Virtual Morality

December 21, 2008

As technology advances and drags us into different spheres of reality we must re-examine the choices we make as virtual actors. Where does morality stand in these brave new worlds?

Games like Second Life and Grand Theft Auto allow players to experience virtual life with no lasting consequence. Anything goes. In Grand Theft Auto morally dubious things you can do include sex with prostitutes, killing civilians, killing cops, stealing cars and generally spreading fear and destruction. But why stop there – what is the difference between virtual murder and virtual rape? What makes one right and another so taboo? Of course if this was included in the game there would likely be mass public outrage but explaining exactly why virtual sex and murder are acceptable, and virtual rape isn’t, is not easy.

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There is the usual concern that violent games lead to violent actions – we’ve seen this most recently with the media’s reaction to both the Columbine and Virginia Tech. massacres. Personally I think this argument is dull as it seems much more likely that instead of violent games inspiring violence in people that in fact violent people are drawn to violent games. Much more interesting, with games becoming more detailed and allowing for greater immersion, is the question: am I free to do anything, or are some things inherently wrong?

In the 2002 film Minority Report we are shown a virtual brothel of sorts where customers purchase fantasies ranging from murdering your boss to infidelity. The latter of which must require clarification by individuals and religious groups. When does infidelity become infidelity. Another more difficult question to answer is: what kinds of fantasies should be condoned?

Recently this question has been debated in relation to Second Life. It was found that certain members created child avatars and proceeded to engage in sexual acts with adult characters. This might have been allowed to carry on if it were not for actually child pornographic material being uploaded. When Linden Labs issued a warning that such actions would not be tolerated they came to loggerheads with some of the participants who argued that Linden Labs had no business in the activities that consenting adults participate in. This is a key challenge between people who see no moral boundaries in virtual worlds and those that do.

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Religion takes a different view on morality from the model which governs society. As part of society we are part of a social contract. Simply put, this contract is there to prevent harm. Where state morality condemns harm against others, religious morality is mostly concerned with what offends God. You are not to wrong your neighbour because not only does it harm your neighbour, but because you anger God. This is clearly shown in that the first five commandments of the Decalogue are concerned not with the mistreatment of one’s neighbour (e.g. lying, stealing, committing adultery), but with man’s approach to God (e.g. creating idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath holy). With Jesus there is a radical shift in interpreting moral codes, most easily shown through adultery. The sin is transferred from the physical realm to the virtual realm of the mind. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Where as the humanist or secular view is concerned with the act, religious morality is concerned not only with what we do but what we think.

The question of morality in virtual worlds has been largely ignored due to only recent advances in technology allowing such choices to be made. As use of virtual worlds grow the issue of morality, right and wrong, will become more and more important. How we act in these worlds will ultimately stem from our understanding of the source of morality. Either we will have to concede that as long as no one is harmed people are free to do as they please, or we will conclude that morality does have a place in virtual worlds.

Adapted from ‘Virtual Morality‘, Adbusters #80.
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