The general research question to be addressed in this research project is the following: To what extent and with what ethical consequences is there dis/continuity between moral practices in virtual and 'real' worlds?
Since virtual worlds are socially constructed worlds, they turn eo ipso into morally qualified spaces where selves can look upon themselves as related to and responsible for online fellows. One might assume that in their social interaction virtual selves give, as a matter of course, rise to a common field of habits and unreflected morals as a general (but not necessarily explicit) frame of reference for their activities. The study of existing morality refers to what in ethical theory is called 'descriptive ethics'. Bringing those morals subsequently on the level of 'normative ethical consideration' means: (1) to map, describe and understand existing values and morals (descriptive ethics), (2) to confront them with existing normative-ethical frameworks and (3) to discuss the relevance and usefulness of normative-ethical theory for social virtual interaction.
In merging descriptive and normative ethics, we intend to deal with the general (and crucial) problem in the field of applied ethics, i.e. of fundamental ethical theory being too abstract and hence useless in guiding moral decision making about existing problems in specific social settings (Winkler, 2001). The underlying assumption throughout the research proposal is that only a context-sensitive ethics can offer conceptual foundations that impose credible versions of normativity.
As such the research project is by necessity interdisciplinary, in combining a media-sociological (descriptive ethics) and philosophical study (normative ethics) of online moral practices and reflection.
The general research question concretises in two sets of specific research questions.
1. Media-sociological field research - i.e. descriptive ethics: Within what moral framework are virtual practices enacted? How different is virtual morality from the concrete morality people deal with in their offline social worlds? What moral value does the participation in virtual social worlds have?
2. Normative-ethical research - i.e. normative ethics: To what extent do virtual media and the kind of morality therein at stake answer the fundamental conditions for a grounded ethics? Of what basic categories should one dispose in order to address the problem of how to act ethically in the relation to virtually mediated others?