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Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics and New Media

Editor: Mark J. P. Wolf
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003
Review Published: March 2007

 REVIEW 1: Steven A. Benko
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mark J. P. Wolf

Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics and New Media, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, purports to examine the relationship between new media technologies and moral and ethical decision-making in three broad categories: technology, community, and religion. Virtual Morality is an attempt to think through some of the problems caused by the development of new media. Wolf frames Virtual Morality with three criteria developed by Aristotle and Aquinas for understanding the moral dimensions of any act:
    Knowledge (one must have an understanding of the rightness or wrongness of one's actions); Intention (one must choose to do what one does with full consent of the will); and Action (one must do or attempt to do the act being considered). (6)
The problem that technology and new media pose to moral and ethical decision-making is the way that they can obscure each of these criteria. Knowledge of the rightness and wrongness of one's actions is more difficult to ascertain when the consequences are not readily available. As Wolf writes, "The narrow bandwidth of conversational exchanges in e-mail may make it difficult to gauge the other person's reactions to what we say, while on the other hand, e-mail allows much more long-distance communication to occur and occur quickly, giving us a greater sense of people's responses" (6). The flow of too little or too much information often obscures intention: ambiguity and misinterpretation are common features of e-mail and listserv exchanges. Beyond that is the problem of moral distancing, where an individual or community can create a gap between themselves and his/her actions by employing a piece of technology (program, bot, etc.) to do his/her work. Using technological surrogates makes it easier to disavow those actions as not one's own. The book purports to think through the challenge posed to moral and ethical reflection by new media. From the framework provided by Wolf in the Introduction, it would seem that the essays in the book would speak more explicitly about this challenge then they do. Instead, the book is a loose compilation of essays that explore moral issues caused by or related to new media, but not the nature of the challenge to moral and ethical reflection by new media.

The first section of Virtual Morality considers the relationship among morals, values, new media and technology. In "Digital Media: The Scope of 'Computer Ethics,'" Gordon Hull takes sides in the debate on whether technology raises new questions or whether technology is merely the occasion for new versions of older moral questions. Hull concludes that instead of a category as broad and abstruse as ethics, law and politics are better categories for approaching these problems because they do not reduce problems to generalities that obscure the particularities that make the moral problems posed by technology unique. Hull's point is well taken, but he does not flesh out what he means by politics and law or why they are superior to ethics. It is clear from Hull's chapter that one approach to ethics does not adequately address the moral problems created by technology, but it is not clear why ethics has to be abandoned altogether instead of approached differently.

"Empathy in Computer-Mediated Communications" by Emma Rooksby addresses one of the most pressing questions caused by technology: how is one to relate to others who are technologically distant from me? These are people who are less than a disembodied voice on the phone; they are words on a screen. Disembodiment leads to misunderstandings of meaning and intention, and this in turn inhibits our opportunities to communicate with others in a meaningful way. Rooksby argues that phenomenological empathy can overcome the distance between people who only encounter each other through technology. By paying attention to the style that a person demonstrates in their communication, one can gain an understanding of the person behind the communication by approaching the other's experiences as one's own. As Rooksby writes:
    It is in my turning to and being guided by, not my own experience, but that of another, that constitutes empathy as a unique variety of experience. I live the other's experience through, not as mine, but "as if" mine, drawing on my own experience to do so. I am constrained by my own experience even as I am led to imagine the other's experience fro myself. (45)
Rooksby admits that stereotyping and preconceptions might limit the understanding of the other. But she does not carry this thought to its logical conclusion: stereotypes and preconceptions are inevitable because the other is always unknowable. For a philosopher like Levinas, empathy is a violence against the other because it is a reduction of other to same [1].

"From Simulation to Emulation: Ethics, Worldviews, and Video Games" by the editor, Mark J. P. Wolf, is the most persuasive essay in this section. What begins as a typical complaint about violence in video games becomes a convincing argument for thinking about the way that violence is encouraged by being embedded in the narrative worldviews that give meaning to the action in video games. Wolf goes beyond the facile link that the display of violent imagery in video games makes the people who play them violent, and argues a much more subtle point: "Video games, however, can be causally linked with certain behaviors for the simple reason that these behaviors are required to play the game" (64). Aggression and violence are required to succeed in the game world; video games endorse violence as a response to confrontation by making violence necessary. Not all games are bad; they can help develop positive skills such a problem-solving skills, patience, and powers of observation. However, "certain ways of thinking like overcompetitiveness and the accruing of personal wealth," are also endorsed (73). Wolf concludes by saying that "many of the best-selling games are non-violent" (he uses Myst as an example),and that "this may signal a change in the marketplace and encourage developers to expand the range of the medium and explore its possibilities" (75). The success of the Grand Theft Auto series, to name just one, indicates that game developers have not taken up Wolf's challenge.

"Virtually Impacted: Designers, Spheres of Meaning, and Virtual Communities" by Paul Ford addresses the question of how technology impacts communities. Ford's contribution to this discussion is to consider what virtual communities mean to persons with disabilities. Ford sees it as a double-edged sword:
    Three-dimensional, multi-user, persistent, synchronous, computer-mediated-environments (CMEs) generate unique spheres of meanings where those with physical disabilities can avoid or at least diminish a number of social maladies. But the uses of these multi-user environments also have the potential to reinforce and exacerbate social structures that encourage these maladies. (79)
Disembodiment and anonymity allow latent parts of the personality to come to the fore and the disabled person is not defined by his/her disability. Ford points out that skill becomes the defining characteristic for evaluating a person; however, CMEs are normalizing. For example, The Sims does not contain an option to create a character in a wheelchair. Ford writes that, "the normalization of body images, ideologies, and identities are important concerns to be addressed in the analysis of CMEs, since there are significant overlaps with the everyday world" (89). Since so much writing about online communities characterizes them as frivolous or on the fringes of society, it is refreshing to see a perspective that takes them seriously and then holds them accountable for achieving the highest expression of their claims of egalitarianism, openness, and inclusivity.

The second section of Virtual Morality focuses on community and deals with how communities, in light of new technologies, negotiate the changing moral and ethical landscape. "Communities of Envy: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Virtual Classroom" by Jason Jones takes some of the shine off of the networked classroom and learning environment. The turbulent and chaotic nature of the online community stems from community members being exposed to members of the community who are not bound by community constraints. Work within the community becomes less about the work, and more about negotiating power and seeking stability within the community. Community becomes "a way to reaffirm the student's self, a way to remain whole in the face of classroom power dynamics that could shatter the student's integrity" (100). The response by online teachers should be to pay more attention to pedagogy. Teachers, Jones writes, should "resist adherence to a particular collective identity and to refrain from extolling certain forms of participation as being more community driven than others" (111). Paying more attention to extant speech and "the effects of speech on members of the group rather than on the community" would, according to Jones, reduce aggression and create a more supportive community.

"On-Line Advocacy of Violence and Hate-Group Activity: The Internet as a Platform for the Expression of Youth Aggression and Anxiety" by Jo Ann Oravec establishes two approaches that concerned adults can take when their children encounter hate on-line. The first is the pro-active approach: "Adults directly counter specific forms of hate-group materials and inform young people about the particular perils involved with on-line threats and harassment" (129). The second approach, reactive/vigilant, is better suited for younger children and for people who are more reticent about technology. Oravec writes that "in more reactive/vigilant approaches, the adults who work with young people respond to the various Internet-related problems that emerge, without directly taking steps to inform them about potential hazards before they occur" (119-20).

In "Hating in the Global Village," Chris Nagel analyzes hate and what psychological benefits the hater gains by hating. Hate is part of identity formation; Nagel writes that hate affirms "one's own existence through denying the other's existence or to establish one's own absolutely superior worth by negating the other" (142). Nagel diminishes these identities and communities by calling them inauthentic for their inability to engage in inter-subjective dialogue, for their detachment from objective reality, and for their use of a ready-made context to gauge the contributions of others to their community. Hate can flourish on the Internet, notes Nagel, because all Internet communities are inauthentic:
    The important point is that all of these possibilities of Internet social relations are founded on inauthentic intersubjectivity. Whether the relations are friendlier or more antagonistic, whether they are genuine or phony, Internet relations are always inauthentic. Internet relations are for the sake of the computer user's purposes, take place strictly at the will and convenience of interactors, and can be turned on or off at any moment. (149)
The creation of meaning is not shared; there is just the sending and receiving of packages of signification. Hate groups flourish on-line because the medium suits the message. More than that, the medium suits the reality in which purveyors of hate exist. Nagel's essay has less to do with CMC-based communities than it does with the psychology of hate. Its application is limited by his idealistic view of real world communities (where everyone seemingly contributes in an equal and meaningful way, or at least has the opportunity to contribute) and his narrow view of on-line communities. Nagel's characterization of on-line communities may be true of communities of a certain type, but as a truth of all on-line communities, it seems like too drastic a reduction of the role of community members in shaping the ethos of that community.

The final section of Virtual Morality deals with the interplay between technology, religion, and the communication of religious meaning. Heidi Campbell's "Congregation of the Disembodied: A Look at Religious Community on the Internet" examines the ways that The Community of Prophecy ("an online community or kinship of people who believe the Lord has given them some degree of prophetic gifting," p. 184) both utilizes and overcomes the impact of technology on expressions of religious beliefs. The success the community has had stems from a core group of pastors who maintain the integrity of the discussion by guiding it towards appropriate topics and by removing individuals who are disruptive or do not demonstrate the gift of prophecy. The community's successful use of technology to build community indicates that the study of on-line religion might be moving into a new phase. Gone are the days when Internet- caused disembodiment was an impossible obstacle, when the technology was suspect because of its military origins or secularity. As was the case with other technologies (radio and television), it is becoming clear that those who are motivated to spread the word will respond to the limitations posed by that particular technology at the same time that they take advantage of that technology's particular benefits. In this case, the community is able to realize the metaphor of spirit being breathed into words because in this text-based environment, identity and meaning are all textual. It is believed that the Holy Spirit moves through the technology and gives the community life, thus making the metaphor of the spirit giving life a literal reality for community members.

"Free Market Morality: Why Evangelicals Need Free Speech on the Internet" by Maura McCarthy challenges conservative Evangelicals to re-think their stance on wanting to impose speech and content restrictions on the Internet. Evangelicals should embrace a, borrowing from historian Roger Finke (1997), "supply-side religious economy." This idea applies the laws of supply and demand to help understand the appeal of mainstream and non-traditional religions:
    Religious regulations may take two forms. Subsidy is one form, which rewards select groups and individual membership in those groups. Suppression, or the penalization of unauthorized groups is the second form. Both subsidy and suppression can actively deter public participation in religious organizations. Suppression of fringe religions removes the need for mainstream religions to have popular appeal; it penalizes unauthorized groups and burdens their supporters with persecution. Subsidy also reduces the incentives of mainstream churches to gain popular appeal; it limits competition and inflates the social and economic costs of joining alternative religions. (207)
McCarthy's claim is that religion thrives with, and individuals benefit from, competition. The second reason that McCarthy feels that Evangelicals should embrace free speech on the Internet is because it would give them an opportunity to openly witness to and recruit new believers in countries where religious expression is forbidden. McCarthy's analysis mistakenly applies economic principles of rationality and self-interest to a type of religious belief that is not known for its willingness to respect and embrace difference, even if that difference is theological. That is not to say that conservative Evangelical groups are irrational, but that they do not demonstrate the kind of disinterested rationality that would allow them to see all instances of speech as equal. Theologies from other religions are not merely different, they are wrong and potentially damaging to the soul of the believer. One person's art is another person's pornography, but religious speech does not oscillate between such stark opposites. At most, religious speech moves between being true and being ultimate truth. No one advocating for religious expression on the Internet would diminish the meaning and value of that expression and risk making religious speech equal to any other kind of expression on the Internet. Therefore, there is no need to advocate for free speech on the Internet, just no restriction on religious speech, but this is a very different conclusion from the argument that McCarthy is making.

In "World Wide Witness: Friendship Evangelism on the Internet," Andrew Careaga explores the reasons why evangelical activity on the Internet achieves better results when undertaken by individuals. Careaga sees the Internet giving "witnessing Christians on-line an opportunity to get back to the New Testament roots of evangelism: meeting real people, a few at a time, and establishing meaningful personal relationships with them" (228). The mode of communication on the Internet allows for a trust-relationship to be developed at the convert's pace:
    Relationship evangelism is based on the efforts of individual Christians. According to this approach, each follower of Christ is called to build relationships with non-believers, work to develop those relationships into meaningful friendships, create a level of trust with these non-believing friends, and then present the gospel message to them at the appropriate time. (229)
Reading more like a how-to manual and less like an analysis of how witnessing to non-believers has adapted to new media technologies, or how these technologies have changed the moral and ethical dimensions of witnessing and evangelical activities, Careaga's chapter concludes by saying that these activities have been, and can continue to be, done successfully. But that is hardly an ethical analysis of the activity. No where does Careaga ask whether there is an element of deception in these relationships. The passage quoted above indicates that the early stages of these relationships are deceptive because one person is not being as forthcoming about his/her motivations and intentions as the other person. This chapter is too convinced of the rightness of witnessing and evangelizing on the Internet to be reflective about the behaviors that new media technologies allow and encourage.

The final chapter in the collection is "Grave Imagesİ: A Faith Visualized in a Technological Age" by Kathy T. Hettinga. This chapter links the death of the author's husband to her efforts as an artist to use technology to overcome her perception that our culture uses technology to keep people from death. Hettinga was unable to be at her husband's side when he died because doctors were attending to him. When she does get to see him, it is in a room filled with tubes and other medical paraphernalia. The nurse ushers her out of the room when she tries to pull the sheet down from his chin. Hettinga's response is to try to make death -- largely invisible in our culture -- visible. She does this through the Grave Imagesİ project. According to Hettinga:
    I am interested in faith symbols that bear witness to stories of tenacious faith -- the stories of what people found to be most important when faced with our greatest enemy, death. In artists' books and computer prints I am tracing the vestiges of death, explaining in visual language for myself and others the reality of our fragility and mortality. I am using some of the latest computer technology to digitally capture the historic images, intensify their symbolic content, and then mass produce them. From this small work, I know that technology can be used for redemptive purposes, as a witness to contemporary people. (239-41)
There is no doubting Hettinga's sincerity, but like many other essays in this volume, there is no sustained analysis of whether this should be done. Certainly technology makes it easy to take and modify pictures of graves, memorials, and abandoned farmhouses, but should one? This lack of reflexivity is heightened by Hettinga's use of the copyright symbol every time she gives the name of her project (Grave Imagesİ). Her effort to make death more public by taking pictures of personal memorials, then digitally altering them, and claiming ownership of them is an irony that borders on hypocrisy given what her project purports to be about. A more critical analysis would interrogate the author's seeming messiah complex as she endeavors to be the sole voice bringing to the public a more robust understanding of life, one that includes death but not nearly enough of the voices memorialized in her pictures.

The last several chapters in Virtual Morality point to the larger problem with the text. Any attempt to find a narrative thread that runs through the book as a whole, or even through the smaller sections, is difficult to the point of being futile. If the challenge of new media to moral and ethical decision making is the way that it challenges traditional ways of understanding the moral dimensions of any act, the chapters that comprise this work seem to be about their respective topics before they are about this theme. None of the chapters takes up the editor's call to investigate the ways that new media technologies challenge moral and ethical reflection. Further, it is unclear if something more subtle is at work. Is the reader supposed to go from the Introduction to the text and ask how traditional ways of understanding the moral dimension of an action are challenged by new media? This leaves the book being a loose collection of chapters united by nothing more than being about a similar topic, but not being about anything specific enough to warrant them being bound together in one volume.

  1. For Levinas, the idea that knowledge of the other is constituted by a projection of the subject's own understanding of him/herself is a violence against the other. Instead of knowing the other by analogy or empathy, the other remains mysterious; the encounter with the other is a trauma that indicates to the subject the limits of her/his grasp on the world and meaning. Levinas concludes that an ethical relationship with the other emerges in the subject becoming responsible for the other. Here, responsibility requires that the subject substitute him/herself for the other. Only in becoming one-for-the-other is violence against the other avoided. See Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974).


Roger Finke, "The Illusion of Shifting Demand: Supply-Side Interpretations of American Religious History." In T. Tweed, editor, Retelling U.S. Religious History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Steven A. Benko:
Steven Benko teaches courses on Religion and ethics at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. His interests are in the area of ethical subjectivity and posthumanism. He has presented papers and published on the relationship between ethics, technology, and posthuman subjectivity.  <sabenko@nc.rr.com>

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