Archive for June, 2009

Virtual Ethics 101

Friday, June 5th, 2009

OK, so maybe you are walking on the wild side. Maybe very wild. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

Now, lets consider how one might go about constructing an ethics that could apply to such a mercurial and evanescent phenonenon as the life in virtual space. Party pooper! you scoff. We can do whatever we want!

Ok, maybe it is true that in many ways you can do whatever you want. And if you do not care whether you have any virtual friends, I am sure you will. Because in many virtual worlds, escaping any possible consequences is as easy as merely creating a new account, a new identity, a new avatar. Wasn’t me! That was some other guy/lady/monster.

I will address myself, however, to the (hopefully) majority of you who do care whether you are liked or not. Although I have had my “don’t give a fork” days, I usually classify myself as belonging to this non-sociopathic group — the society of civilized beings. Since I do not exist in a vacuum (oh all right, my background is in Physics, yes I know that technically we do all exist in a vacuum…I meant metaphorically) socially, I am affected in various ways by my interactions with other entities, whether they exist in real or virtual space. As they are by their interactions with me. That being the case, it would seem that one might suggest guidelines for behaviour (not thought, of course…we must be free to think whatever we wish in the privacy of our own heads) with respect to other entities.

It would be the height of facile simplicity to moan that we should all follow the Golden Rule: treat others as we wish to be treated. But let’s face it: not all others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For example: suppose I meet someone who is role-playing being a slave. Presumably, this person would prefer, in the context of the role play (not necessarily in real life) that i treat him/her as if he/she were a slave. Now I, personally, do not want to be treated like a slave. So if I follow the Golden Rule, forgive the pun, slavishly, and treat this person in the way that I personally wish to be treated, i.e. as a free person, then I might claim I am acting properly.  But am I?

Here is a case in which in attempting to follow a common ethical principle I am, in actuality, acting contrary to someone else’s wishes. I am not treating the other person in the way they want to be treated….just in the way that I want to be treated. In such a situation, while I claim to be acting morally, the other person could retort that I am merely acting selfishly. (Incidentally, if you think that this is a purely hypothetical situation, then I suggest that you visit a virtual world such as one of the Gor sims in Second Life, where such situations are “real” and frequent.)

I am led, therefore, to propose that a more generalized version of the Golden Rule is required:

“When appropriate, treat others as they wish to be treated, as you would prefer that you be treated as you wish to be treated.”

What this boils down to is repecting the right of others to pretend. If someone is “wearing” the avatar-shape of a dog and going about on all fours, they probably do not want to be treated as if they are a wizard or a Elf. If someone is wearing wizard robes and waving a magic staff, they probably would not appreciate a lecture on the unreality of magic in modern society. If someone is wearing a collar and kneeling as a slave, they probably do not want you to insist that they act like a free person. It is a matter of respecting their right to play the role they have chosen. If you disapprove of dogs, wizards, or slavery, that is your right, and you do not have to be a dog, a wizard, or a slave. But when we are talking about pretending, about virtual as opposed to real worlds, it seems only fair to allow others to pretend whatever they want, if you want the same right to pretend to be what you want to be.

Now, notice that I inserted the phrase “when appropriate” at the beginning of this meta-Golden Rule. That was for obvious reasons. If a person is masochistic, and wants others to be cruel to them (or to pretend to be cruel to them), I do not feel that this obligates me to act in a way that is uncomfortable for me. I am not a masochist. To be forced or expected to beat everyone who cries “beat me!” would be painful to me psychologically, and thus I feel it is unfair and invalid to expect me to adhere to such expectations. If you want to pretend to be a god, then do so…but don’t expect me to worship you….unless that is the local rule, a rule that I have explicitly agreed to by joining a simulation in which such a thing is required.

Honor the pretensions of others when you join them in their realms of pretense. If you do not wish to do so, then find your own venues and follow your own inclinations there. If you disapprove of even pretend slavery, don’t bother to go where it is virtually practiced — those who value such let’s-pretend scenarios do not appreciate moralizing as if they were actually oppressing people in real life. They find it either amusing or obnoxious. It interferes with their suspension of disbelief and their role playing. Similarly, people who like to pretend to be vampires or demons or various kinds of villains rarely appreciate do-gooders lecturing them on ethics….unless it is a discourse that is appropriate and natural for the roleplay situation you are in.

And please, do not dismiss this as all just a version of “play nice, kids”. While you could consider roleplaying in virtual worlds to be “merely” playing, some might insist that it is simply acting correctly in alternate realities, validly exploring other modalities of being.

As the saying goes, “be…all that you can be”.  And allow others the same freedom. –MRK

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