Sunday, September 14, 2008

Morality in Virtual Worlds, Part 1

Recently, Hotspur O'Toole raised the issue of morality in virtual worlds. His comment was in the context of griefers, and I opined that the issue was one of manners rather than morality. Not that issues of morality cannot arise in virtual worlds, but griefing is essentially an offense against the typist, not the avatar. Shooting someone in a non-combat area is an annoyance, unsociable, just not nice - but the purpose is not evil in the way that a violation of one person by another is evil. Putting it another way, consider griefing within a role-playing environment: because the griefer's activities are outside the RP, it must be the case that the griefing is directed at the typists. As such, griefing is an annoyance, not a moral concern.

On the other hand, consider interactions among avatars as avatars, that is, within the context of the RP environment. If Mr. A rapes and tortures Miss B, there is a moral offense. Even though SL requires consent on the typist's side, the fact remains that Mr. A committed an act that offends the human notions of right and wrong. Of course, it is possible to RP an environment where a different sense of morality holds sway, but the fact remains that a human being is making a decision that runs counter to basic human decency.

This musing brings me to Gorean sims. I have read one of the Gor books to see what the fuss is about. I found the writing to be sophomoric, the plot unimaginative, the characters wooden, and the worldview of the author - particularly the adolescent teen male fantasy that men were born to dominate and use women - offensive. The book left a bad taste in my mouth.

(To be continued. Next: Kathy visits the Kingdom of Sand.)


Hotspur O'Toole said...

Nice post, and I applaud your theme here. Get ready for the storm. :-D

Morality, as Socrates teaches us, is an idealized concept of a right or wrong behavior. In a virtual world, you can look at the TOS being the Linden's attempt at enforcing morality-- they have an idea of a universal 'right or wrong' and will (ha ha ha) enforce it as they see fit. Because SL attempts to be all things to all people (on purpose, because that is where the money is), the definition of "right" or "wrong" in world starts fuzzing around the edges when the profit motive is introduced.

You mention that the event that started the thread over on Hibernia (the griefing incident) was a matter of bad manners. Of course it was. I tried to take pains to describe this event as what it was in actual terms-- a minor annoyance at best. In fact, I wanted the fellow doing the shooting to know that I didn't find him, or his actions, particularly heinous. There was another element in play that fascinated me, however-- the idea that it was okay for him to be ill-mannered simply because he could get away with it. He (and his somewhat obvious alt, Molly) state this many times over: "what should he expect? He had damage on, you moron!" By classical definition, that was a decision with an ethical context: "I will do what I do because I can, and the other person's needs or desires don't really matter".

Virtual Worlds and MMOs (of which SL is my first experience, btw) are a unique and somewhat sobering gauge of how some people treat ethical decision making. A consequence-free world gives rise to all sorts of unique insights into character. Would I trust a person to be guided by an ethical foundation that states: "I'm making this choice because I can get away with it"? Personally, no. Not that I would ever discover this in the real world.

To readdress the money motive-- I've had my judgmental moments about people in world, often. I remember a discussion with no less than the Guv once, where he brought up an excellent point-- "Hotspur, did you ever get off the high horse long enough to realize that SOME people are here to play EXACTLY this way, and spending lots of money to do so? Do they have less rights than YOU do?" He has a point.


Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you for the kind comments, Mr. O'Toole. And I feel confident that the storm will be no more than a drizzle - mainly because I suspect my readership is in the single digits. :)

You have clearly given the matter more thought than I - Socrates? Lord, my education is lacking! - and I assure you I was not disagreeing with your analysis on your Journal, merely providing something more than a hat tip and something less than a graceful segue into the day's musings. In fact, I should say that the motivation for the post was a combination of your discussion and a mildly tongue-in-cheek discussion on ISC chat about getting together a group for a camel ride in a Gorean sim. (Purely for educational purposes, mind you - I'm not about to espouse griefing.) As I was still mulling over the question of "virtual morality," and was still annoyed at having months ago wasted $15 or so on Mr. Norman's book - how did he manage to get the first one published, as the writing was so horribly bad that my high school creative writing instructor would have sent it back to the author? - I was compelled to write.

I have no doubt that many people pay their money to play exactly that way. It's a (mildly) slippery slope, however. If playing at dolcett - another word I learned from the vocabulary-expanding Second Life - is morally acceptable because it requires voluntary participation, then why can't one agree to be hacked, eaten, or whatever in one's First Life? To put it another way, paying money to behave badly does not necessarily give one the right to behave badly.

Having said that, I don't know where I would draw a hard line. In the end, the Guv may be right - at some level, morality is merely what a group of people agree is right and wrong. Others can pay and play with like-minded individuals. I'll pay my money and hang out with neo-Victorians and trade double entendres. And avoid being sold. :D