People and Community Research

Using virtual reality to teach ethics

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

Does teaching ethics make people more ethical? 

Whether it works or not hasn't been studied much, but I think that if it did, the world would probably have far more vegans and vegetarians, and far fewer unethical business practices. Actually, if our approach to teaching ethics was effective at making people more moral it seems like the experts on ethics, the ethicists themselves, would easily be the most ethical individualsaround, but as the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel discovered they’re probably no more ethical than anyone else.

In fact, a running joke on the popular sitcom, “The Good Place,” was that the moral philosophy professor who taught the others how to be good people, was not a paragon of goodness himself. 

So, how do we make ethics education more effective at helping people become more ethical? We need techniques for teaching that are not just focused on learning the concepts and theory, but also cultivate ethical behavior. We need it to be something that becomes second nature to them. But, if teaching ethics doesn’t do that, then what does? Well, think about ways we can learn a new language, for instance. One way would be to take a language course in a university and read books that teach us about the language. Another approach is the full immersion approach in which we completely immerse ourselves in speaking the language and performing all the other dedicated practices that go along with the language, perhaps we even travel to an area in which it is the official language. This approach to learning is a more effective way to learn a new language. 

Our strategies for teaching ethics should take a page from immersive techniques for learning a new language. That is, we needto immerse students in situations that confront them with moral issues, where students can be shown instead of just being told about ethics.

Think about how we give teenagers permits to drive before they are old enough. We do this because we know that the experience of driving is more important than being told about driving and passing a multiple-choice test. Likewise, studentsbeing taught ethics should be put into a controlled environment in which they are confronted with moral issues and allowed to experience and make decisions about them. But, how do we actually accomplish this?

Using virtual reality, we can place students into deeply immersive experiences that confront them with ethical situations and decisions that they must make. This technique is somewhat reminiscent of

service-learning approaches in education. In service-learning students are put into volunteering situations, where they learnthrough immersion. They take the concepts they have learned in class and apply them in real-world situations. Virtual reality, though, allows us to do something that service-learning does not. It allows students to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else. Inhabiting another perspective cultivates empathy and changes behavior. This has been shown many times, across a suite of different topics. For instance, one study found that having white people inhabit the body of a Black person in a virtual realityenvironment can lead to sustained reduction in bias as a result of an increase in the participants' empathy

Using VR’s ability to cultivate empathy is the key to helping students to become more ethical. So, let’s imagine that students are learning about the ethics of homelessness. Using Stanford’s “Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience” we can place students in the shoes of someone “who can no longer afford a home,” as they sell their possessions in an attempt to avoid being evicted, and end up sleeping in their car. We could also have them spend time with Rocky, a homeless woman living in a tent inthe park, as she explains how she ended up homeless through “We Live Here,” a VR app built in collaboration with the advocacy organization “Invisible People.” Being there and experiencing the lives of others is an important step to these issues becoming real to students and building empathy.

But, these are not the limits of virtual reality's potential for teaching ethics. With better technology will come the ability to createimmersive experiences that confront students with even more complex moral situations. The possibilities of using virtual reality for teaching ethics are limited only by our ability to create new applications to address ethical issues. 

Matthew Watts is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”