Our lives are increasingly a blend of real and virtual. We do much of our communication, socializing, shopping, work and entertainment in what is essentially a virtual world. What makes what we see and hear from this virtual world meaningful and relevant is that it represents something in the real world. Sometimes those are real people or real objects, but other times it includes things that are less tangible such as experiences, emotions, or just knowledge or information.
How do we define the difference between what is virtual and what is real? Virtual things still exist, only in a different form. They come down to specifically arranged molecules and atoms on a physical storage medium. What makes them come "alive" are processes which basically involve sophisticated manipulations of electrical signals. There isn't a huge fundamental difference between that and what happens in our own brains, yet we feel our thoughts, emotions and senses to be quite real. We in fact use these to discern between real and virtual.
Virtuality as a form of reality
This in a way makes a full circle. If virtual things are actually as real as our own minds which we use to discern between real and virtual then is there even a true distinction between the two? Perhaps instead of implying that one is real and the other isn't we might simply consider "virtual" to be real in a different way or a different form.
A tree in some computer game certainly isn't the same thing as the tree in the real world, but it still exists as what you see it to be or what you can detect it to be, a tree manifested on your computer screen, your VR glasses or perhaps your future holobands, or a particular arrangement of physical representations of "ones and zeros" that "create" that tree. We often say "it is not real" when referring to objects in the virtual world solely because what we see there behaves differently and disappears when we turn the computer system off. But different behaviors and parameters of existence do not deny existence itself.
This "realness" of virtuality is relevant to the issue of ethics in virtual worlds because recognizing it makes us likely to consider the concept of virtual world ethics more seriously,but also because it prompts us to consider the physical things which manifest the virtual things when we observe the ethical issues relevant to them.
Types of virtual worlds
So far there were two types of virtual worlds.
One includes virtual tools that solely augment or enhance our "real life" by enabling us to do something faster, better or cheaper. They include user interfaces that represent information we're dealing with, and the information itself. This is the realm within which the whole issue of music file sharing resides in, where there are arguments over whether copying particular files amounts to theft or not.
The second type includes entire virtual worlds designed to vividly emulate, but also build upon what is seen in the real world. They aren't so much about allowing you to do real world activities faster, cheaper and better (although they sometimes could be) as much about immersing you into a completely new world for the sake of the experience. Examples of this are many realistic 3D video games, and metaverses like Second Life, Entropia Universe and so on. Ethical issues that can be raised within this realm would to a large extent emulate the same issues raised in the real world. For example, is it OK to kill someone in a virtual world if if it isn't OK in the real world?
Physical property and consent
The crucial issue in both of these cases is being able to exactly discern what is what and who is who. Given that ethics imply right or wrong actions being committed by one human being upon another there needs to be a clear delineation between what constitutes one human being and his domain and what constitutes another. How can we understand this if we don't even understand the medium through which the world we are talking about exists to begin with?
The medium is always physical just as a human brain is physical yet still responsible for our thoughts, feelings and a general sense of self. All information exists through a physical medium of some kind, and physical devices facilitate its creation, transmission, copying, processing and expression (or output). This means that all issues of ethics within virtual worlds can be traced down to issues of ethics within a well known physical world. What we see as virtual is, as already established, just an expression of what is real.
Physical things can be created, traded and therefore owned. Your property is an extension of yourself since it is the product of your actions without which you wouldn't really be yourself. Any way in which yourself or your property is used against your will is typically considered as theft and therefore immoral. Even murder is just one variant of using something that is yours against your will, only such "use" results in death. This is what everything when it comes to ethics ultimately comes down to: consent, your will over that which is yours, and equally the will of others over that which is theirs. This is what creates a natural balance between individuals.
Many systems of legitimacy which have any scientific thinking behind it one way or another rely on or at least pretend to rely on consent as the determinator of what is legitimate from that which isn't. Modern governments imply the existence of consent of the governed and sometimes invoke the idea of a social contract to justify their otherwise coercive rule. I personally believe (and I couldn't believe impersonally) that modern governments have no basis behind such a claim (since many of the people whom supposedly gave consent never did such a thing), but that is besides the point. The point is that they recognize the need of consent as the means by which a particular relationship or interaction becomes a morally legitimate one.
Consent is therefore the key to determining an ethical paradigm regarding actions within the virtual worlds as well. All that remains is to be observant of the process that goes on as you interact with or within a particular virtual environment, paying attention to whose property is used within that process and by whom. What happens, for instance, when you download a song from somebody's computer via a file sharing protocol?
You use your own computer, your own router, ISP's network infrastructure, and finally the computer of the one you're downloading a song from. If the agreement you have with your ISP gives you a fairly unrestrictive right to use its infrastructure within certain bandwidth boundaries you have the consent of your ISP to your use of their infrastructure to download this song. If the owner of the computer you're downloading the song from put it up for public sharing of his own will, you have his consent as well. In other words, nothing unethical is happening. Furthermore, no real loss occurs to the other computer owner as the song is merely copied. Despite multi-billion dollars backed claims of some people, a "copyright holder" of that particular song (essentially just an arrangement of bits) lost nothing either, nor were any of them or their property even involved in this whole process of copying.
Here is another example, involving a multiplayer first person shooter game. Is all that fragging back and forth ethical? Well, was there consent of property owners whose property is involved in creating this experience? You again use your own computer and router to connect, ISPs own infrastructure (which provided consent through your ongoing agreement with them), the multiplayer server which was created for this purpose (therefore there is consent) and finally the computers of the other players who manifest your avatar. Consent in such games is implied. If you didn't want to engage in that activity you wouldn't even connect. This applies to pretty much all virtual worlds which are widely regarded as just video games. A "game" is widely known as an often competitive experience shared by those who agree to participate.
Finally there is perhaps the most complex example, a true open ended virtual world. It is what some of existing Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) aspire to be and what worlds like Second Life and Entropia Universe arguably are. It isn't hard to imagine that in the future such worlds will be accessible through far more than just a computer screen, keyboard and mouse or a controller. They could be accessed through such devices as holobands envisioned in the new TV series Caprica, which literally put all of your senses into the virtual world so you feel exactly as you would feel in the real world (by sending sensory data directly to the brain).
What about ethics in such a world? What makes this case different from a virtual world typically designated as just a game is that it really isn't just a game anymore. Therefore consent isn't universally implied anymore. Provided you can do anything in such a world it is conceivable that you would trample on some person's legitimate rights.
As far as what physical property is being used in this process it isn't very different from typical multiplayer games except this time we involve this sophisticated future device called a "holoband". You use your holoband, your router, ISP's infrastructure and the servers belonging to whoever set it up, and the files and programs constituting the virtual world you are entering. Again, ISP probably provided consent within your agreement with it, and there is consent as far as you merely connecting to the servers of the virtual world goes, but that's where things get more complicated. Unlike in games with simple defined rules and objectives this is an open world in which everything is possible. Does the owner of the servers allow you to do everything on it?
It appears then that the first thing to consider if you want to behave ethically in this virtual world are the rules of the one who owns the hardware that make it possible, who essentially plays a role of the virtual world's law maker. What if he, however, specifies no rule whatsoever. Note that this is different from making it explicit that by entering the world you agree that anything goes, that anything can be done to you. If there is no agreement of any kind whatsoever that you need to make before entering the world your or anybody's usage of those servers implies no ethical obligation. Well, there is still the issue of usage of your own property.
It can be argued that someone doing something to you in a virtual world is using your holoband in a way in which you did not agree it to be used by others. They are sending you sensory input you did not agree to receive. On this basis, any relationship or interaction which you are subjected to against your will within that virtual world would be unethical. You would have to be asked before someone engages you in a virtual deathmatch. If you build something within the virtual world (in which the server owner posed no rules whatsoever) it would literally be the work of your mind and therefore your property (within the confines of that virtual world and therefore that server) so someone taking, using, or destroying it against your will would be acting unethically as well.
In other words, unlike games in which you cannot do anything and therefore simple entrance implies consent to whatever the game is about, in a completely open ended virtual world manifested by servers whose owners concede to everything consent is provided or denied for individual activities in the world.
What we call virtual is actually real, but in a different way. This is not to say that a virtual tree is an actual tree. It is more to say that a virtual tree exists as a real virtual tree. Being virtual doesn't make it non-existant. It merely makes it exist as information, a different kind of molecular structure which doesn't make up an object but rather allows the object to appear within human sensory input. This means that all that is virtual exists through something that is real given that information requires a medium to exist. This links it to real world property and therefore real world ethics the basis of which appears to be consent.
Observing all processes which involve a person's access or interaction with a virtual world of some kind allows us to see precisely which physical property is being used and to whom it belongs, which allows us to consider the consent of those who own such property when judging actions within the virtual world that are facilitated by such property.
At the very least my hope is that this analysis of the issue provokes some interesting thoughts that might help prepare you for a world increasingly permeated by virtuality. Trying to better understand virtual worlds and how they behave may have its benefits in other unexpected areas. For example, nanotechnology may turn an entire physical world around us into something we can program and manipulate in a similar way we do virtual worlds, essentially revealing all that exists as fundamentally subject to information, the very building block of virtual worlds.