Dr. Edward H. Spence

Meta Ethics for the Metaverse: The Ethics of Virtual Worlds


After a brief introduction that sets out the overall argument of the paper in summary, the second part of the paper will offer a meta-ethical framework based on the moral theory of Alan Gewirth, necessary for determining what, if any, ought to be the ethics that guide the conduct of people participating in virtual worlds in their roles as designers, administrators and players or avatars. As virtual worlds and the World Wide Web generally, is global in its scope, reach and use, Gewirth's theory which offers a supreme principle of morality, the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC) that establishes universal rights for all persons always and everywhere, is particularly suitable for this task. The paper will show that persons both in the real world and in virtual worlds have rights to freedom and wellbeing. Strictly with regard to agency those rights are merely prima facie but with regard to personhood framed around the notion of self-respect those rights are absolute.

The third and final part of the paper will examine in more practical detail why and how designers, administrators and avatars of virtual worlds are rationally committed on the basis of their own intrinsic purposive agency to ethical norms of conduct that require the universal respect of the rights of freedom and well-being of all agents, including their own. Using Alan Gewirth's argument for the Principle of Generic Consistency (Reason and Morality, 1978) and my expanded argument for the PGC in my Ethics Within Reason: A Neo-Gewirthian Approach (2006), the paper will specifically seek to demonstrate that insofar as avatars can be viewed as virtual representations of real people ( at least with regard to some virtual worlds in which the virtual agency of the avatar can be considered as an extension of the agency of the person instantiating the avatar in the real world) and thus can and must be perceived as virtual purposive agents, then they have moral rights and obligations similar to those of their real counterparts. Finally, the paper will show how the rules of virtual worlds as instantiated by the designers' code and the administrators' end-user license agreement (EULA), must always be consistent with and comply with the requirements of universal morality as established on the basis of the PGC. When the two come into conflict, the PGC, as the supreme principle of morality, is always overriding.

Edward Spence, BA (Hons), PhD (University of Sydney), is senior lecturer in moral philosophy at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) in Canberra, and Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Ethics and Technology (CET) in Den Haag. He is currently working as a Research Fellow (2006 to 2009) in the Philosophy Department, University of Twente in the Netherlands.

He is lead author of
Advertising Ethics and co-author of Corruption and Anti-Corruption: A Philosophical Approach, both published in 2005 by Pearson/Prentice Hall, USA; He is the author of Ethics Within Reason: A Neo-Gewirthian Approach, Lexington Books, USA, 2006 and lead author of Media, Markets and Morals, Blackwell, forthcoming. He is also the author of several refereed papers in national and international journals.

He is founder and producer of the
Theatre of Philosophy whose aim is the introduction of philosophy to the general public through drama.