In ancient Greece, Plato asked, “What is the good life?” Two and one-half thousand years later, it is time to re-examine this question.(1)

The development of new virtual reality technologies will lead to important changes in daily social and economic life, and will raise a number of important topics in the field of ethics, in moral philosophy, in political philosophy, and in existential philosophy. Virtual reality has the potential to fundamentally change our relationship nature, with each other, and with ourselves. It is an exciting time for philosophy, and an exciting time to be human.

People have always been uncomfortable with technological innovation and with the social change that it brings. Nevertheless, this concern brings up a number of questions that will help to influence the both the development and the use of the technology. We may ask, “What is the potential impact of these technologies? Where are we going? And how can we influence the direction we are headed in?”

Virtual reality is a computer simulated reality. It is perhaps most vividly portrayed in movies such as the Lawnmower man and the Matrix. Although the development of these technologies is not something that we should expect to see in the near future, it is probable that we will see these technologies in the not-too-distant future. In fact, computer simulations and video games are surprisingly realistic. High definition video and sound, virtual reality goggles, virtual reality gloves, and real-world physics – it is pretty amazing.

In the future, we are likely to spend most of our time in virtual environments. People will work in virtual offices, go to virtual shopping malls, hang out in virtual bars, and meet with who-ever they want, when-ever they want. Everyone will be beautiful, everyone will be rich, and no-one will die of accident or contagion. The virtual world could be a very exciting place. Given our current trajectory – the fact that we already spend a great deal of our time on the telephone, using a computer, or watching TV – the idea that we will spend nearly all of our time in virtual environments is not as strange as it first seems. It fact, it would seem to be a probable state of affairs.

Historically, the introduction of a new communications technology has lead to important changes in social and economic life. With the introduction of new communications technologies, such as virtual reality, we should expect this trend to continue. Thus, like the television, the telephone, the radio, and the networked computer, virtual reality will lead to important social changes.

As we spend more and more time in virtual environments, it will raise a number of important topics in the field of ethics. These topics may roughly be divided into three basic categories: traditional moral questions about the use and impact of the technology, existential questions about who we want to be, and questions about the relationship between the individual and the state. “How is the technology to be used and understood?” “What is the good life?” “And how should we interact with one-another?”

With the development of a new technology, there is a period in which new social norms and expectations are negotiated and defined, as they are extended to new situations. We are confronted with a number of new situations, and we have to decide how to act. What types of behavior are acceptable? How will unacceptable behavior patterns be discouraged?

This process is exemplified by what we see on the internet, today. “How do you feel about YouTube, Napster, privacy, online pornography, etc? Do we have right to privacy? And what does this mean? What about property rights? Or the right to control your body?” There is a famous episode in which someone was raped online. “Should the culprit be punished? And if so, how? And how severely?” In this way, we are confronted by a number of important ethical questions.

Governments, in an attempt to address these issues, will attempt to regulate virtual space. And as we spend more and more time in virtual space, governments will extend their influence into virtual space (“vGovernment”). It goes without saying that the role of government in virtual space will be a item of considerable debate, not only within the philosophical arena, but within the political arena. What is the proper role of the State? What is the role of the individual within society? And how do we understand things such as liberty and basic human rights, in virtual space?

The proper role of the State is a particularly intriguing question. “What exactly is it that the State would do?” Clearly, it is necessary for the state to regulate virtual space, as an extension of the real world. But, within virtual space, itself, there may be little need for the State, as a formal bureaucratic institution. That is, there may be little need for the State to enforce the law, to protect against outside invasion, to organize labor, to redistribute wealth, and to promote the general welfare.

. . . the model of the nation-state – having turf and fighting over it with armies; the concept of nationalism – loyalty based on cultural heritage and geographical location; the concept of economics as competition over scarce resources; and an understanding of rights in terms of the physical body, no longer seem quite appropriate. (2)

What, then, is the role of the State, and do we need one at all?

Not only does virtual reality challenge the relevance of the Nation-State, it highlights new social possibilities, leaving us to ask about the nature of the good life. “What is the good life?” “What is the ideal society?” “And who decides?” This will lead to a great deal of speculation about new socio-political forms (perhaps, somewhat reminiscent of speculation following Columbus’s “discovery” of America).

In a similar manner, social engineering and “virtual genetics” will raise a number of interesting questions. Emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, genetics, and virtual reality will give us greater control over who we are, emphasizing the role of existential choice. In particular, social engineering may be used for behavior modification; and it is possible to alter the virtual body, to play with sensory inputs, and to condition behavior (although the human brain has limited plasticity or flexibility). With the help of these tools, you will able to be nearly anyone or anything you want. Man has become god.

But, what then of morality? Just for the sake of argument, what if it were possible to become a crocodile? It is morally permissible (at least presumably) for a crocodile to eat its young; and if you were to become a crocodile, it would be morally permissible for you to eat your young. Of course, it may have been immoral to choose to become a crocodile, in the first place. Morality, it seems, would be a matter of existential choice, not a matter of inherent biology. In this way, right and wrong may be viewed in terms of existential choice, not in terms of action and intent. It is existentialism on steroids – “transhuman-existentialism.”

It appears that we are moving into uncharted waters, morally, socially, and politically. And this is clearly something that many people will feel very uncomfortable with. But, looking at the problem of existential choice from another perspective, virtual reality gives us both the power and the freedom to be the kind of people we could only hope to be. And that would be a wonderful thing.

In this way, the introduction of virtual reality challenges us, as humans, in a deep and meaningful way. Virtual reality will lead to dramatic social and cultural changes, and to new possibilities, introducing a number of important questions in the field of ethics. The development of virtual reality technologies, however, in large, does not introduce new philosophical problems; but it states them in new ways, and with renewed vigor. Philosophy becomes “live, forced, and monumental.” Perhaps most importantly, the development of virtual reality technologies raises a number of questions about who we are as humans, about the nature of the good life, and about how we interact with one-another.


1 Cline, p. 169
2 Cline, p. 266

Cline, M. (2005). Power, Madness, and Immortality: the Future of Virtual Reality. SB: University Village Press.

If you are interested in the philosophy of virtual reality, you may be interested in Mychilo's book, Power, Madness, and Immortality: the Future of Virtual Reality. Power, Madness, and Immortality discusses a number of topics in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy. In particular, it discusses the ethics of design, existentialism, human rights, the virtual state, and the formulation of a new worldview.