Is There An Innate Virtual Morality?

    October 21, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

Read this essay by Andrew Tuplin about morality in virtual worlds and try to keep your brain from tying itself in knots. New technology brings up (surprisingly) an age-old question: Is fantasizing, or playing out an immoral scenario, the same as (or as bad as) actually doing it?

Our humanistic legal system—usually—would say no, it’s not the same: You can’t convict somebody for murder if they kill a virtual person or video game character because they didn’t actually commit harm to anyone. Then again, Muhammad Ali’s daughter was once arrested for intent to shoplift, not actually shoplifting. She put that picture frame back, even.

But that was in Ohio, where you can be arrested for pretty much anything, contrary old ladies included.

For some, depending on which side of the moral fence they stand, Tuplin’s premise is ridiculous. It isn’t even credible to blame Grand Theft Auto for actual violence, much less apply any kind of moral judgment to vicarious unreal behavior—it’s just a game. Pretend kill and rob all you like, have fake sex with all the fake hookers you want.

None of it’s real so none of it matters. The other side says, often while sweeping their own naughtiness under the virtual rug, that of course it matters: The secret desires of the heart and mind pollute from the inside out.

But as Tuplin either expressly addresses or leads the reader to think about: Porn surfing and virtual sex aren’t technically cheating on a physical spouse—but it may feel the same to the spouse. Not good enough of an argument in favor of virtual morality? Other than actual child porn appearing on Second Life, why was there such an outcry about virtual adult avatars having virtual sexual experiences with virtual children (who were actually adults)? Why is virtual rape out of bounds?

None of it’s real so none of it matters right?

Well, obviously there is a line somewhere, and these types of virtual sex acts are pretty far across it. Even still, there were protests (by those participating, naturally) that LindenLabs had no business in their creepy pretend business.

Tuplin concludes, “Either we will be forced to concede that as long as no ‘other’ is being harmed, people are free to do absolutely anything (torture, rape, molest, murder, etc.), or we will conclude that morality does indeed have a place in virtual worlds.”

You could add to that: stalk, harass, insult, or generally be mean to, but I’m sitting this one out as far as actual conclusions. No doubt some of our readers haven’t. In real life, I try to be good, and most of my most closely-held morals I adhere to online as well. Virtually, I’m a reprehensible criminal: I’ve killed scores of pretend people, dealt virtual drugs, given assumed names to assumed strangers, participated (in the early days of the Net) in gang-flaming in chat rooms, wished for the untimely demise and/or misfortune of real people I’ve never met or seen and only imagine what they must look like and how they must act in my head (pasty and fat and bald and in-their-mom’s-basement loserish), assassinated fictional heads of state and mentally whacked real heads of state, silently cursed, quietly and distantly lusted, run over the heads of cartoon cats with a law mower and innovated sadistic ways to kill pretend mimes.

Does all that make me a bad person? I’m going with no, it makes me a human person. If pretend-child-molested was on that list, though, I would have had to have said so.