The moral status of virtual action


Dr David Sanford Horner
University of Brighton,


Negroponte (1996) writes of an ‘ontological shift’ from being analogue to being digital. The meaning of such a claim has been elaborated with the popularisation of the ideas of ‘virtuality’ , ‘virtual worlds’, and ‘cyberspace’. Cyberspace has been defined as ‘an independent realm created by the interconnection of the world’s information systems’ (Woolley 1992, p.127). Being digital is being in cyberspace. What begins as a fictional narrative in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1995) becomes the discourse of a future – if not of the present.

This paper investigates the computer-ethical issues that are posed by certain conceptions of virtuality and cyberspace. The strong claim of the ‘argument from virtuality’ is that we are confronted with the need to re-invent our moral frameworks. Information and communication technologies permit ‘virtual’ action , i.e. actions which are no longer characterised by the co-ordinates of physical time and space. Does the virtual or intangible nature of such actions change or affect their moral status? Is to suffer in cyberspace morally equivalent to suffering in physical space? Do we need a new moral language to cope with the implications of this new space?

Virtual communities and institutions, it is argued, are already with us constituting a physically disembodied social order. This virtual order exists in parallel with social structures in real space – but will, according to Langdon Winner (1990), eventually compete with a society of entities which occupy spatial locations. Traditional operative moral ideas, it is claimed, are bound up with corporeal identities and their specific spatial, geographical locales and forms of life. The fabric of human relationships and communities rests on real presences, real physical meetings and relationships. Virtual reality converts our primary bodily, corporeal experience into electronically mediated telepresence. Through electronic mediation we can keep the ‘other’ at a distance; play at assuming different identities. The growth of on-line culture may well diminish a sense of ‘real’ community, a sense of solidarity and attachment or indeed force the construction of different kinds of community ties (Heim 1993).

What’s the problem here for moral theory? Floridi (1998) argues, for example, that the victimless crime of the hacker and the ‘ludic’ or game like nature of virtuality challenges the premises of de-ontological ethical theories. Human action in cyberspace may not appear to have the same status as action in real space. Responsibility ceases to be relevant and tangible.

The very nature of virtual action seems to separate the idea of cause and effect. If the consequences of such actions have the properties of being immaterial, undetectable and untraceable does it then make sense to continue to apply consequentialist frameworks? As the consequences of action reach vanishing point so to does the idea of moral sanction. In networks, as Johnson (1997) points out, agents can communicate whilst masking their identity (using pseudonyms and adopting different personas) which disconnects actions from persons. In addition individuals may use others’ words, alter them, or adopt someone else’s identity. (But how is this different from everyday forms of lying?) The effects of distancing and anonymity combine to promote a kind of depersonalisation. The web of action and reaction, the fluidities of identity may again attenuate a sense of responsibility.

Do the conventional notions of a social contract survive in a virtual world? The discourse of rights, justice, authority, equality and even freedom, again according to Winner (1990), presupposes a physical, spatial context. Political morality is tied up with ideas about our being (physically embodied) persons who live in particular locations. How can we talk meaningfully about rights and duties in virtual space? Given the global, nonspatial nature of participation in virtual communities it is easier for individuals to opt out of contractual obligations. Floridi (1998), for example, argues that virtual actions give rise to something akin to a ‘state of nature’ where individuals are very far from having comparable technical competencies or technological facilities and where it is perfectly rational for the ‘strongest’ to opt out of the contract.

The approach in this paper will to question the claim that there is a radical distinction between so called ‘virtual’ actions and ‘physical’ actions. It will challenge the assumption that often underlies moral theory that ‘…doing an action must come down to the making of physical movements with parts of the body’ (Austin 1970, p.178). We need in other words to get behind more specifically what ‘doing an action’ might stand for. Our ideas of persons and of personal accountability are embedded in our language and have evolved from the real situations in which human beings have found themselves and largely continue to find themselves. Any decisions about how to describe and evaluate the status of virtual actions can only be made against this background of current meanings. It is this world which our language, and its everyday stock of concepts, has evolved to deal with – including ideas of praiseworthy and blameworthy actions. Virtuality leaves everything as it is.


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