The Use of Virtual Reality in Teaching Moral Philosophy

Mark Hocknull

The proposal is for a pilot study into the use of virtual reality (VR) in teaching moral philosophy to undergraduate students by constructing a number of philosophical thought experiments as ‘games’ in the virtual environment. The aim is to test the hypothesis that students respond differently to a moral dilemma in the VR environment from how they would respond in a traditional classroom situation, and to explore the pedagogical implications of this.
The project will explore a novel way of using digital technology to reveal moral intuitions in a ‘safe environment.’ The project seeks to answer the following questions:

a) Can VR be used in the classroom to simulate moral dilemmas?
b) Do students respond differently to the same dilemma when it presented as a VR game compared to a described thought experiment?
c) Does the use of VR help students to embed moral decision making in their everyday practice?

The relative roles of reason and intuition in moral thinking has been a topic of debate since the 18th century. Thought experiments are often used by philosophers. They deliberately create a tension between different moral schemes. When presented with a dilemma in a normal classroom context, students usually go straight into analytical mode justifying possible responses. This evades a potential key use of this kind of dilemma which is to gain access to moral intuitions which are the raw material of moral reflection.

Initial work I have done indicates that the use of physical models of a dilemma in which students are asked to make a choice, does indeed generate a different response from the standard classroom presentation of a dilemma. Developing a VR environment would allow us to deepen this effect. Students report that using the model makes them respond intuitively. Then after the action has been taken, they are able to reflect on the reasons for their choice and its morality, broadly conceived.

Turning the moral dilemma into a virtual reality ‘game’ puts the participant in the position of having to act rather than think. These actions can then be used in a seminar which de-briefs the experience, and explores the philosophical dimensions of the dilemma. The pedagogical point is to open up a deeper understanding of the nature of morality and its relationship to other dimensions of human life.

One claimed benefit of studying philosophy is the development of rigorous analytical and communication skills. Some recent thinking amongst philosophy educators suggests this may in fact not be the case at all. One possible explanation of this is that in teaching philosophy, we have neglected the connection of thought with other aspects of life. We produce graduates who can think clearly and analytically in one sphere, but neglect to connect this ability to the whole of life. The project proposed here will seek to test this idea in one specific context: the teaching of moral philosophy.

A growing body of literature on the use of VR in a teaching context and in a research context exists. Pioneering work has been done by a group at UCL led by Mel Slater. Work there has been largely concerned with the proof of technology. They reproduced Milgram’s classic ‘shock’ experiment of the early 1960s in the virtual environment and demonstrated that participants showed similar responses to the virtual character to those in the original experiment. For example, when the virtual character asked participants to speak louder, they invariably did so, indicating that the virtual world is a good model from which to study people’s real-world behaviour. In terms of pedagogy, the situation is still developing. VR has long been used in the training of pilots, where time spent in a simulator counts towards the total number of flying hours needed to qualify. In higher education, the technology has yet to be thoroughly tested. As with the UCL work, the focus has been primarily on technological questions such as the role of representational fidelity and learner interaction. More recently, Fowler, (2015) has begun to expand considerations in to pedagogical requirements. The focus here has been on immersion because it simplifies the learning experience into three stages: encounter, exploration, and dialogue. On the framework itself, see for example Bronack et al., 2008. The methodological framework of the proposed study is an attempt to work with this framework.

Milgram, S (1963) Behavioural Study of Obedience journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 67:371-378
Milgram, S 1974 Obedience and Authority McGraw Hill
Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison,A., Swapp, D,. Guger, C., Barker,C., Pistrang, N., Sanchez-Vives, M.V., 2006 A virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments PLosONE
Bronack, S., Sanders, R., Cheney, A., Reidl, R., Tashner, J. & Matzan, N. (2008). Presence pedagogy: teaching and learning in 3-D immersive environments. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20, 59–69.
Dalgarno, B. & Lee, M. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41, 10–32.

The proposal is for a pilot study into the use of virtual reality (VR) in teaching moral philosophy to undergraduate students by constructing a number of philosophical thought experiments as ‘games’ in the virtual environment. Students are asked a short series of questions (each requiring a yes or no answer) to establish their perceived moral framework.

Having answered the questions, the students are randomly divided into two groups. The first group are invited to play the VR game which plays out a moral dilemma. The second group are invited to take part in a seminar on moral philosophy using the same dilemma in the traditional way.

Afterwards, both groups participate in a discussion about why they made the choices they did. The discussions will explore the tensions between actions and reported beliefs. There are different moral calculations that come into play, for example the perceived overall outcome of a choice compared to the perceived duties we owe to other human beings. There is often an intuitive grasp of the philosophical distinction between an action which causes a particular outcome and an action intended to achieve one outcome but as a side effect producing an additional, unwanted outcome: the so-called doctrine of double effect.

We will be looking for any differences between the two groups in terms of:
a) The choices made
b) The justification of the choices made
c) The philosophical issues raised in the discussion
d) Inconsistencies between perceived moral frameworks, as revealed by answers to the initial questions, and moral choices with respect to the presented dilemma.

March 2018 Progress Summary

The project is proceeding well, but is slightly behind schedule, however we should be able to complete the pilot study in time and have the pilot project completed as planned by June 2018.

Progress to Date
A postgraduate Computer Science Student, Tom Smith, has been recruited who has built the VR scenario. The design has been worked on jointly and is currently going through the final stages of refinement. This work has been done as part of Tom’s own research project.
The budget spend so far has been on computer equipment and a VR head set to run the scenario. Part of the delay in the implantation has been the difficulty in ordering this equipment because of the specification needed to run the VR display. The equipment is now here on campus and the programme will be running on the new dedicated machine in a few days’ time. And we are ready to begin the next stage of the project, using the scenario in a classroom situation.

Next Steps
We are currently recruiting student s from the School of History and the School of Computer Science to take part in a series of workshops which will compare the impact of the use of VR technology in teaching ethics. The workshops will run post-Easter in late April. Depending on the number of responses we get, the workshops may run on to the first week of May. A questionnaire will be used to assess volunteers’ baseline moral intuitions and participants will be divided into two groups. One will use VR and the other a more traditional pedagogical method to discuss the moral dilemma. We will be able to evaluate the different scenarios in terms of participants ethical choice when confronted with the dilemma and in terms of how either their action or their considered responses relate to their baseline moral intuitions.