Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Image World and the Ethics of Virtual Acts

I recently looked at the work of Stephanie Partridge, who argues that we should take a moralistic attitude toward certain fictional representations. Included within that group of fictional representations are acts of virtual rape (such as might be performed in a video game like RapeLay). In this post, I want to look at a similar set of arguments from Gert Gooskens. These will be drawn from his article “The Ethical Status of Virtual Actions”.

In the article, Gooskens asks the question: can the moral predicates “right” and “wrong” be applied to virtual acts? And if not, where does that leave us in relation to our attitude towards such virtual acts? In answering those questions, Gooskens defends three related claims:

Claim 1: A necessary condition for the application of the moral predicates “right” and “wrong” to virtual acts is that the game player must have the requisite freedom to act in the virtual world.
Claim 2: The satisfaction of this necessary condition is not sufficient for the application of those predicates. This is because the phenomenology of virtual acts is not suited to the application of those predicates.
Claim 3: Despite this, we can still, rightly, feel some moral “discomfort” toward certain virtual acts.

Before considering Gooskens’s defence of each of those claims, it’s worth clarifying that he is only interested in what he calls “purely virtual acts”. These are actions that real-world people perform, in a virtual environment, through the medium of their character or avatar, against virtual (i.e. computer simulated) characters or agents, without causal implications in the real world. This excludes, for instance, actions in multi-player games where what I do with my character might affect a character being controlled by another human agent. The reason for focusing on purely virtual acts is straightforward: they seem to be the ones most insulated from typical, real-world, moral concerns. So if it turns out that there is something wrong with them, it would be an interesting philosophical result.

1. Freedom in a Virtual World
If we are going to label certain virtual acts as “right” or “wrong”, then it seems like we must make certain assumptions about the responsibility of the agent performing those acts. The term “wrong” carries with it some admonishment or blame; the term “right” carries with it some praise or exhaltation. But if that’s the case, then it would also seem to follow that the freedom of the virtual agent is a necessary precondition for the application of those predicates. Why? Because freedom is a precondition for responsibility.

Or so, at least, Gooskens believes. I’m not sure I agree. I think the labels “right” and “wrong” can be applied without any moral appraisal of the agent who performed the acts. Gooskens acknowledges this in a footnote, and tries to correct for it by talking about rightness and wrongness in the “strong sense” (i.e. in the sense requiring blame or responsibility). I’m willing to accept that modification since the dispute is largely a semantic one.

In addition to this, Gooskens never actually defends his claim that freedom is a necessary precondition for responsibility. He simply states it as a fact. One could quibble with this on the grounds that what is and what is not necessary for responsibility is a contested matter. To be fair, however, I think we can say that Gooskens is using the term “freedom” as a general label for whatever kind of practical rationality is needed for morally evaluable action. Thus, I assume that nothing he says requires any particular position on compatibilist or libertarian theories of responsibility. (Of course, it may exclude certain forms of hard determinism).

Despite all this, I think Gooskens does make some good points about the nature of freedom in the virtual environment. Specifically, he draws attention to the fact that games don’t always allow their players a great degree of freedom. Indeed, classically, games only allowed players to exercise a very narrow form of instrumental rationality. The games would have clearly-defined goals or objectives, and a limited set of pathways (maybe even only one pathway) to achieving those goals or objectives. Arguably, this doesn’t allow for the necessary kind of freedom.

This raises obvious questions about the virtual rape in a game like Custer’s Revenge. In this game there was a clearly defined objective — rape of the Native American woman tied to a stake — and to succeed in the game you had to manipulate your character to avoid attacks and reach the woman. As such, this game only allowed the player to exercise a restricted form of instrumental rationality. This might raise questions as to whether the necessary precondition for moral appraisal is met in this case. The problem with this analysis, however, is that it ignores the decision by the player to play a game with such a clearly-defined goal in the first place. Surely freedom over that choice would meet the necessary condition for responsibility?

In any event, more recent video games allow for a much more robust type of ethical rationality to be exercised. Increasingly, there are multiple ways of achieving a given game objective. For example, in Grand Theft Auto you don’t usually have to mow down pedestrians or kill prostitutes in order to complete the missions. Also, there are some games with open-ended environments, in which you choose your own objectives. These games would seem to meet the necessary condition.

2. Morality and the Phenomenology of the Image-World
Nevertheless, Gooskens thinks that the sufficient conditions for the application of the predicates “right” or “wrong” are not met in virtual environments. To defend this conclusion, he makes uses of certain ideas from phenomenology, particularly those of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the contours of subjective experience. Husserl was one of the leading phenomenologists and he developed a particular phenomenology of the “image world”, i.e. the world of representations, both real and fictional. These representations would include photographs or paintings of real or fictional events and people, and also video games involving real or fictional agents and worlds.

Gooskens argues that acting in a virtual world is a kind of image-consciousness (roughly: an intention to do things through the medium of an image). Image-consciousness is characterised by the “as-if”-modifier, i.e. the situation is such that you are actually perceiving or intending something of type X, but it is as-if you are perceiving or intending something of type Y. Consider the following example:

Grandfather’s Photograph: I am holding in my hand a small black-and-white photograph of my grandfather and looking directly at it. What am I perceiving? I am actually perceiving a grey two-dimensional figure on a piece of card; but it is as-if I am perceiving my grandfather.

That example should be pretty straightforward. The point is that the things that are perceived or intended through image-consciousness are “beings-as-if”, i.e. they are not really there, they are only virtually there.

The key Husserlian move is to argue that image-consciousness not only covers the objective correlates of our perceptions and intentions, but also those mental states themselves. In other words, when looking at my grandfather’s photograph, it is not just that the photograph is only an “as-if” representation of my grandfather, it is also that my subjective state of perception is an “as-if” state of perception. Husserl illustrates the extreme implications of this view with the example of a picture of human suffering. He argues that we cannot really feel real pity by viewing this photograph, we can only feel “as-if” pity.

I have problems with this Husserlian move (assuming Gooskens is fair to Husserl in his description of it). I just don’t see why the emotional states that accompany the perception of a representation cannot be real. This seems particularly true if the image represents something in the real world. If I saw a picture or documentary about real suffering children, I think I would experience a real, genuine form of pity, not just an “as-if” form of pity. Admittedly, the situation is trickier with purely fictional forms of representation, but even then I think there is some room for genuine emotional (or other) responses. Oddly enough, Gooskens seems to accept this when he defends his third claim. We’ll get to that in a moment.

For the time being, we’ll just have to accept the point about the mental states also being affected by the “as-if” modifier. It is central to Gooskens argument against the application of moral predicates like “right” or “wrong” to virtual acts. That argument runs something like this: There are two ways in which to assess the morality of virtual acts, the consequentialist way and the deontological way. The consequentialist way assesses rightness and wrongness in relation to the consequences of an act. But since purely virtual acts have no real consequences, they cannot be judged right or wrong in the consequentialist way.

The deontologist fares no better. According to his method, we must assess rightness or wrongness by focusing on the acts and the intentions accompanying them. The problem with this is that — following the Husserlian move — these intentions are affected by the as-if modifier: they are not genuine intentions to do something wrong; they are merely as-if intentions. This is further compounded by the fact that in the virtual world the player acts through the medium of their character. This means that it’s not just that the player is performing acts with “as-if” intentions, it is that the player is acting “as-if” s/he was the game character who had those as-if intentions. Gooskens puts it this way: there is an important distinction between the real-I and the image-world-I. When I play a video game, I occupy the perspective of the image-world-I not that of the real-I.

To set this out more formally:

  • (1) The moral predicates “right” and “wrong” can only be applied to purely virtual acts using either the consequentialist or deontological methods of assessment.
  • (2) The consequentialist method cannot work because purely virtual acts have no real consequences by which they can be assessed.
  • (3) The deontological method cannot work because virtual acts are a type of image-consciousness and are consequently affected by the “as-if”-modifier (they are neither acts nor real intentions: they are merely “as-if” acts and intentions).
  • (4) Therefore, the moral predicates “right” and “wrong” cannot be applied to purely virtual acts.

If we accept the image-world phenomenology underlying it, the argument would thus seem to go through. One obvious omission, however, is any mention of virtue ethics in the first premise (that being the third branch of normative ethics). One could argue that the omission is fair insofar as virtue ethics is not concerned with the rightness or wrongness of actions per se but, rather, with the goodness or badness of characters. Still, that seems like a stretch since virtue ethics does have implications for the assessment of actions. And as was suggested in my previous post about this topic, the virtue ethical approach could allow us to make moral assessments of those who engage in certain virtual acts.

3. Moral Discomfort and Virtual Acts
As it happens, Gooskens seems to be aware of this. He just doesn’t couch it in terms of “rightness” or “wrongness”. For in the third section of his paper, he goes on to defend the view that we can rightly feel moral discomfort at certain kinds of virtual acts.

In broad outlines, his argument is very straightforward. It is simply that we rightly feel moral discomfort whenever a performer of a virtually immoral act blurs the boundary between their real-self and image-world-self. In other words, when the “as-if” modifier begins to lose its grip. (But, of course, if this can happen it casts some doubt on the preceding argument, doesn’t it?)

Though the argument is straightforward, Gooskens uses some nice examples to flesh it out. First, he takes us away from the hi-tech world of video games and back to the more genteel and low-tech world of the stage play. After all, actors are the quintessential performers of virtual acts and usually we have no problem with them performing acts that would otherwise be highly immoral. Thus, we do not balk at Anthony Hopkins playing the sadistic cannibal Hannibal Lector.

But there is some complexity to this too. Usually, upon learning that an immoral act is part of a play or performance, we feel a great sense of relief. Imagine walking into your flat to find your actor roommate apparently forcing himself on a woman, but then seeing the director of the play your roommate is in issuing various directions from the couch. In this case, what would initially be a feeling of grave moral concern would shift to one of relief. (Gooskens also gives the example of the performance of Julius Caesar in the British comedy series Blackadder III, which is rather amusing but I won’t recount it here).

Can the emotions ever run in the other direction, i.e. from a feeling of relief (or ease) to a feeling of discomfort? Gooskens argues that it can. Imagine if you are watching the stage performance of your roommate’s play. Everyone is captivated by his intense and realistic performance during the rape scene. Afterwards, you congratulate him on this and he tells you that the reason why he was so intense and realistic is that he was actually sexually aroused during the scene. Gooskens suggests that in this case you would feel moral discomfort. Your roommate appears to have blurred the boundary between his real-self and his image-world-self in a most disturbing manner.

Can this ever happen in relation to video games? Yes, it can. Indeed, Gooskens thinks that the case of someone who frequently plays a game like RapeLay is possibly more discomforting. There are certain features of video game performances that differentiate them from stage performances and that render the motives of the performers even more questionable. As he puts it himself:

Users of a virtual environment, however, are not playing for a public but only for themselves. The player of the Japanese rape game [RapeLay], for example, does not portray a rapist to convey something to an audience, and this makes it very probable that his or her only reason to engage in artificial rape is that he or she is actually aroused by it. This causes the distinction between his or her actual person and his or her image-world-I to collapse.
(Gooskens, 2010, p. 73)

If we accept this analysis, however, don’t we allow ourselves to start applying moral predicates like “wrongness” to their actions? Gooskens insists that we cannot. We can only feel moral discomfort because there are still no intrinsically wrong acts being performed. I find this conclusion somewhat disingenuous. Given that the distinction between the real-self and the image-world-self was central to his argument against the application of moral predicates to virtual acts, the suggestion that this distinction can collapse in certain cases would seem to undermine that argument.

Still, there is something attractive to Gooskens’s analysis. I’m not a fan of over-moralising everything we do, the idea of holding video game players morally responsible for purely virtual acts seem like a case of moralistic overreach to me. Gooskens allows us to resist this moral overreach, but acknowledge occasional instances of moral discomfort.

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