Ethics Across Realities

Copyright © 1996, Erskin L. Cherry

With all these virtual realities popping up all over the place, doesn't it make you wonder about what happens if you're virtually done wrong? How are we supposed to handle all these virtual ethics? Though he didn't know it, Immanuel Kant had more of a grasp on the concept than you might think.

I refer to Kant's concept of moral universes. Which essentially says that when there is a moral universe with only one moral agent, morality is irrelevant. If I was the only thing in the world, it wouldn't matter what I did. I wouldn't offend anyone because there wouldn't be anyone to offend. My actions would not be morally good or bad, unless you count me doing something morally bad to myself. (Which implies an odd sense of duplicity, anyway.) If there were two moral entities, say you and I, and we never interacted with each other, (say we were both terribly afraid of water, and were each separated from each other by a large amount of it,) we still wouldn't need any sort of morals. None of our actions would affect the other. Even if there is more than one moral entity, and they interact, morally right and wrong aren't needed until one of them does something to offend or upset another. If we share an apartment together and I never do anything to bother you, what need is there to call my actions toward you good or bad?

While the examples above are far from bullet-proof, the ideas are quite solid. There only arises a need for a distinction between morally good and bad when there is more than one moral entity involved and somebody doesn't like what somebody else is doing.

This in itself may not seem like much, since we all exist in the same moral universe, ... or do we? I know of at least two morally separate universes that we all shift back and forth between. I'm in one when I'm awake and another while I'm asleep. What is morally correct when I am at home with my parents is quite different from what is morally correct when I am out with friends, and neither of these is the same as the system of rights and wrongs I go by when I'm giving a formal business presentation. And still another is used when I log on to my UNIX account and post an article on USENET.

Each of these is a different moral universe. Each has it's own sense of decorum. Each of these moral universes, or realities, has it's own set of accepted guidelines for behavior.

My original question seems less complicated in this light. We knew the answer beforehand, just as Kant did. If I misbehave at home, Mom gets mad at me. If I ruin the presentation at work, I get fired. If I spam hordes of news groups, I'll get flames in my mail box, and possibly my account canceled or my site banned. You'll note, however, that my mother argues with me while I'm at home with her, not at my job. And that my boss fires me at work, not the next time he catches me down at O'Malley's Bar. And in the same sense, I get flames via email, not knock on my door one Saturday afternoon. Each of these realities has it's own rules of propriety and it's own way of responding what it deems morally bad, without leaving it's reality.

So where does this leave us? Right where we've always have been. Responsible for our actions in the reality we enacted them in, only. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And if you screw up in Rome, get punished in Rome. Ah, but who said I wanted to go to Rome? And what if I break a Roman law and flee to Canada?

These sort of questions confirm the need for some sort of moral multiverse meta-ethic. Since we all exist in more than one reality, we need some sort of overall pan-reality set of guidelines to cover the transitions.

So what if I flee to Canada? Last time I checked, I'd probably end up getting extradited back to Rome. And what if I didn't want to go to Rome in the first place? Turns out it would have to be my choice in the first place. (Assuming I wasn't born there.) These are some things to remember as we create new realities and discover the boundaries between the old ones.

I should have a choice of what realities I am part of, and should have the freedom to come and go as I please. (At least until I earn banishment for my impropriety while I'm there.) If I don't want to talk to the Hare Krishna, he should leave my doorstep. If I don't want to read about penguins anymore, then I should be able to unsubscribe from the funky-penguins mailing list.

In addition, I probably aught to have some way of knowing what I'm getting into beforehand as well. I should be able to ask the waiter what's in the dish before I order it. I should have some way of knowing that the hypertext link to bigguns.jpg contains material inappropriate to those who have a fear of large objects before I click on it and get the horrifying image of the worlds largest tomatoes thrown on to my screen. Likewise, the vegetarian restaurant down the street is generally better off by letting me know they don't serve meat before I go in there. I don't get funny looks when I ask for a hamburger, and they don't have to stop and tell me, and every other meat eater that walks in, that they don't serve meat there.

In summary, one should only be held morally accountable in the context of the moral universe, or reality, in question. Furthermore, there should be some method of knowing what is in a reality before entering it, and no impediments for entering or leaving a reality, at any time, excluding banishment for previous improper behavior.

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This file was last modified on March 27 2004 01:31:31.