Virtual Morality

Jocelyn Tan ’15 and ethics assistant professor Erick Ramirez are both working to integrate virtual reality into their business and research in order to improve empathy in sexual harassment training and psychological studies.

Picture it: One hand rests on the lever controlling a train switch. Birds chirp. Suddenly a tree falls, crushing five panicked workers onto the track. Flip the switch and an oncoming train moves to the second track, where only one worker is trapped. Your heart races as you decide what to do. Now take off the Virtual Reality headset, exhausted from the imaginary danger and decision.

This is the latest take on the age-old ethical dilemma known as the trolley problem—and it is the frontier for coders, ethicists, movie makers, social media companies, and psychologists. 

Would you sacrifice one person to save many? That’s the central philosophical quandary in the classic thought experiment, the trolley problem. Video courtesy TED-Ed

Jocelyn Tan ’15, a Markkula Center Hackworth Fellow, uses VR to improve sexual harassment training by putting people in real life situations as CEO of the nonprofit SISU. VR, she says, “adds perspective, immersion, empathy and realism.”

Ethicist and assistant professor Erick Ramirez designs VR simulations—including the trolley problem—where participants react more accurately because the environmental pressures feel real, yielding results that help psychologists better understand empathy.

However, Ramirez warns, simulations that allude participants into thinking they have experienced being a black man or an illegal immigrant are dangerous. Everyone carries emotional baggage that makes it impossible to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes.”

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