Dealing with the virtual other: An empirical and ethical study on the un/acceptability of virtual moral practices.

Katleen Gabriels

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Since the 2000s, the development and rapid growth of 3D virtual worlds is one of the most remarkable tendencies in the new media landscape. Numerous people have avatars in virtual multi-user surroundings like Second Life (SL) (Linden Lab, 2003) and World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004). These virtual spaces raise compelling questions with regard to virtual encounters and moral responsibility, as users have total freedom to act and to experiment since they appear anonymous before virtual others.
Many authors have subsequently expressed concerns about the degeneration of morality and ethics due to virtual technologies. Turkle for instance is concerned about the blurring of loneliness and intimacy, as virtual connections permit us to hide from one another, eventually leading to the fact that "we expect more from technology and less from each other" (2011, p. xii, p. 1). Lanier (2011) emphasizes how virtuality changes the world and human relationships and utters concerns about a decline of morality and humaneness. Other scholars however look upon virtuality as a positive equalizer to overcome distance, hierarchies, physical appearance and so further (e.g. McGonigal, 2012). They consider virtuality as a solution of an imperfect world and as a chance to improve humankind, for instance, by means of ethical game design to improve moral thinking and awareness (e.g. Castronova, 2007). Still others state that virtuality is merely an extension or continuum of reality; in virtual space, human behavior and practices subsequently follow the same rules and patterns as in actual contexts (see a.o. Miller & Slater, 2001; Tuszynski, 2006; Heider, 2009).
We take these diverging views on the relation between virtuality and morality as a starting point to examine (1) if and to what extent virtuality influences our dealing with the other and, related to this, (2) which ethical consequences this brings about.
We address these questions by conjoining a strong grounding in moral philosophy with an empirical study on the grounds and meanings of moral values and practices in 3D virtual space. We focus on Second Life, in which residents are free to choose how to spend their time in-world and how to assign meaning and purpose to their virtual activities. We aim to gain understanding in how residents make sense of virtual moral practices and what they believe is un/acceptable in-world moral behaviour. By means of in-depth face-to-face interviews we explore how avid residents, who logged in for the first time between 2005 and 2007, reflect on, imagine, judge, and evaluate in-world moral scenarios.
We approach our findings in a three-fold way. First, we focus on informants' converging and diverging arguments on the un/acceptability of the scenarios. Second, to discuss these findings in a more fundamental way, we elaborate on the 'boundary' between actuality and virtuality, and related to that, the boundary between virtual and actual morality. We end with a profound discussion on the ethical challenges these findings bring about, in specific, concerning moral evaluation, moral responsibility, and (the acknowledgement) of moral agency.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPaper presented at The Power of Information Conference, Brussels, January 20-23, 2013.
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventUnknown -
Duration: 1 Jan 2013 → …

Publication series

NamePaper presented at The Power of Information Conference, Brussels, January 20-23, 2013.


Period1/01/13 → …


  • Moral Philosophy
  • Second Life
  • Ethics of Technology
  • Computer Ethics
  • Moral Reasoning
  • Empirical Study


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