Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996
Philosophical Perspectives on Free Speech and CMC

Wizards, Toads, and Ethics

Reflections of a MOO Administrator

by Wes Cooper

Those who think that pornography and censorship are only an issue for the hot, pictorial, and auditory WWW district of the Net, and not for the cold and textual Telnet district, are presumably unfamiliar with the deviancies personified by Mr. Bungle, whose sexual abuse of female-presenting characters on LambdaMOO has been skillfully chronicled in The Village Voice by Julian Dibbell. There are innumerable ways of presenting coarse and vulgar discourse (flaming, swearing, harrassing, simulating deviancy, etc.) on a MOO, often in forms that blur the distinction between word and deed, and these may be intolerable.

There is need for discussion of how thresholds for toleration should be determined.

My picture of this determination is that anything goes, in the first instance; and the libertarian ideal of (negative) individual rights is perhaps the most fundamental, distinctively moral voice to be heard (Certainly it was the first to be heard on the Net); but it is not the only moral voice, nor the loftiest. As J.L. Austin reminded the philosophical community long ago in a book titled How To Do Things With Words, we don't just describe the world with our words; we do things. And as MUDs have shown, it is possible to create interactive, text-based virtual worlds which create a vivid sense of the player's "being there" as his or her character, so vivid indeed that players can do extremely gratifying or degrading things to each other. We do things within MUDs, and among these things are virtual sex and virtual rape, dragging others down or celebrating community with them, contributing to a common cause or subverting it.

All of this raises the question: What principles should guide an administrator in regulating these things? Too often the strength of the influence of one's upbringing is mistaken for the strength of the moral position one has been brought up to consider self-evident. However useful this prejudice may be in ordinary life, it is ill-adapted to the curious new worlds we are creating on the Net. We need to do moral philosophy tailored to the peculiarities of cyberspace.

As a founder and administrator ("wizard") of Walden Pond MOO, an academic environment celebrating its first anniversary serving the University of Alberta and the University of Hawaii, I have a practical interest in developing a moral philosophy for cyberspace: I have to decide whether and when to boot players, with varying degrees of severity and finality, from the MOO. Along with Diversity University, CollegeTown, VOA, SchMOOzeU, and several other MOOs (not to mention MUDs such as the LPmud Painted Porch), Walden Pond is defining a new genre of multi-user "dungeon," looking beyond the MUD subculture with a view to occupying useful niches in the academy, in business, and in government. So its threshold of tolerance for dubious discourse may be lower than the norm for recreational MOOs.

However that may be, I believe that my theme here is broadly applicable, not only to MOOs and other MUDs, but also to BBS, IRC, and other Internet domains where people express themselves. I propose that cyberspace is naturally "Hobbesian," a place without rights, but that it can become "Lockean" if its occupants construct such a moral space; and more generally, moral dimensions of cyberspace are to be constructed rather than discovered.

This is a more radical view than it might appear. The claim is not that we flesh-and-blood keyboard-manipulators might come to have rights in cyberspace --we may or may not have some such rights already--but rather that our electronic representatives on the Net, so-called avatars or characters, may come to have rights.

The Mr. Bungle case provides a convenient point of departure. The player guiding the Bungle character knew enough about MOO programming to manipulate the text that players saw in a public room, so that a female-presenting player and others in the room would see her character being viciously raped. As Dibbell's article reveals, the politics of the Bungle case at LambdaMOO were complex, bringing out a spectrum of philosophies about government of the MOO. But I want to emphasize --four voices that rang clearly amid the furor:

From the voices, we gain two lessons. The first instructs that we can aim at higher moral goals than simple recognition of the rights and reality of others in our virtual worlds. We can also relate to them by affective ties ranging from friendship to love, and we can make communities with them. The second lesson points out the scope for moral heroism, willingness to become a selfless vehicle of, and perhaps a sacrifice for, some higher good.

In addition, these voices correspond closely enough to a four-layer moral structure which has been recommended recently by the very same philosopher, Robert Nozick, who, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, gave libertarianism its most profound philosophical statement. Nozick's moral structure seems on the right track when we attempt to develop a moral philosophy tailored to the peculiarities of cyberspace.

In the end, this provides a way of thinking about how moral constraints should structure and guide the processes of change as we increasingly project and identify with our characters on the Net.

Wes Cooper is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alberta, Canada. His recent writings on William James have appeared in The Journal of the History of Philosophy, The Monist, Transactions of the C.S. Pierce Society, and American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. His "Virtual Reality and the Metaphysics of Self, Community, and Nature" appeared in International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9:2 (1995).

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