There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it. But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.
While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense. This raises a number of ethical concerns. While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one. Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior. So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.
One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors. Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds). These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.
Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems. If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world? Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character? Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?
On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems? What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world? Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings. While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place. If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place. So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses. Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.
Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth. But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.
If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement. If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition? We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway). It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated. On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.
I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life. Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy. We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt. Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.