Bioethics Blogs

Virtually reality? The value of virtual activities and remote interaction

By Hannah Maslen    

The Oxford Martin School recently held a two-day symposium on virtual reality and immersive technologies. The aim was to examine a range of technologies, from online games to telepresence via a robot avatar, to consider the ways in which such technologies might affect our personal lives and our interactions with others.

These sorts of technologies reignite traditional philosophical debates concerning the value of different experiences – could a virtual trip to Rome ever be as valuable (objectively or subjectively) as a real trip to Rome? – and conceptual questions about whether certain virtual activities, say, ‘having a party’ or ‘attending a concert’, can ever really be the activity that the virtual environment is designed to simulate. The prospect of robotic telepresence presents particular ethical challenges pertaining to moral responsibility for action at a distance and ethical norms governing virtual acts.

In what follows, I introduce and discuss the concern that virtual experiences and activities are to some extent deficient in value, especially where this relates to the formation and maintenance of close personal relationships.

Rebooting the Experience Machine

Although virtual environments such as the virtual world Second Life and massive multimedia online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) are relatively new, philosophers have used thought experiments involving forms of virtual reality for decades. The purpose of such thought experiments is to try to illuminate what is of value to the lives and wellbeing of human beings. In 1974, Robert Nozick used the Experience Machine thought experiment to argue against the view that human wellbeing consists only in pleasurable experiences, no matter how complex or apparently real.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.