Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Wizards, Toads, and Ethics, by Wes Cooper

Cyberharm and the Evolution of Identities and Rights in Cyberspace

Let turn to the status of the claim that a virtual world character might have rights, distinct from the real world rights of the character's keyboard manipulator. As the term "manipulator" suggests, I am not advancing the extreme science fiction thought that characters might become independent loci of thought and personality, but rather the less extreme but still radical idea that they might become significant extensions of the identity of the person, sufficiently significant that harm could be done to a person by doing harm to the character.

The analogy used earlier to explain this idea was that "cyberharm," to coin a phrase, would be similar to psychological harm, in being a new category of harm to which we will have become liable if virtual worlds come to flourish. And in virtue of this liability it will make sense to extend rights to our virtual world characters. The point is not to reduce cyberharm to psychological harm, but to suggest that our characters may become a fundamental aspect of our identities, in the way that our psychologies are. I close with another analogy. Consider the tradition of wearing clothes, and the phenomenon of "undressing" someone with one's eyes. It is arguable, I think, that a person qua clothed has a right not to be undressed in this way, not to be seen qua naked.

The presentation of self through clothes is, for most of us, a fundamental aspect of our identities. The presentation of self through virtual world characters is not so deeply entrenched yet, for it hasn't become normal to take for granted the character's reality, instead of "looking behind" to the keyboard manipulator. We do this "taking for granted" to some extent, but it is not a deep and enduring state, since we lack characters and virtual worlds of sufficient substance to tempt us into complete acceptance of them on their own terms. But that will change, and with the change will come an utterly novel modality of human existence, as dramatic as the evolution of our psychologies. --

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