What it’s like to be a _____: Why it’s (often) unethical to use VR as an empathy nudging tool

Ethics and Information Technology 1 (3):527-542 (2021)
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In this article, we apply the literature on the ethics of choice-architecture (nudges) to the realm of virtual reality (VR) to point out ethical problems with using VR for empathy-based nudging. Specifically, we argue that VR simulations aiming to enhance empathic understanding of others via perspective-taking will almost always be unethical to develop or deploy. We argue that VR-based empathy enhancement not only faces traditional ethical concerns about nudge (autonomy, welfare, transparency), but also a variant of the semantic variance problem that arises for intersectional perspective-taking. VR empathy simulations deceive and manipulate their users about their experiences. Despite their often laudable goals, such simulations confront significant ethical challenges. In light of these goals and challenges, we conclude by proposing that VR designers shift from designing simulations aimed at producing empathic perspective-taking to designing simulations aimed at generating sympathy. These simulations, we claim, can avoid the most serious ethical issues associated with VR nudges, semantic variance, and intersectionality

Author Profiles

Erick José Ramirez
Santa Clara University
Miles Elliott
Santa Clara University
Per-Erik Milam
University of California, San Diego (PhD)


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