New Year, New Reality: On the ethics and metaphysics of Zuckerberg’s Meta-verse

Mark Zuckerberg (b. 1984) and the new Meta logo

On 28 October 2021, media magnate, internet entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg (b. 1984), CEO and Co-Founder of Facebook, Inc. (founded 2004), announced the birth of Meta – a new parent company for Facebook and its sister platforms Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. Few commentators doubt that the timing of Meta’s launch was intended to distract attention from incriminating internal documents leaked by the American data engineer and whistle-blower Frances Haugen. The new brand will, it is clearly hoped, distance the venture from an increasingly toxic Facebook. The name change also reflects a bold, new objective: in Zuckerberg’s words, ‘to bring the metaverse to life’. It is an ambitious project and high stakes gamble that raises arguably more ethical (and metaphysical) questions than (even) its precursor Facebook.

One of many new models for VR headsets and glasses

Early estimates suggest Zuckerberg’s Meta (which previously bought and absorbed the virtual reality brand Oculus) has already invested upwards of US$10bn on research and development. It recently announced its intention to hire 10,000 people in Europe to develop Meta’s new ‘metaverse’ and to invest US$150m in immersive learning to train its next gen creators. That said, while the media event to launch Meta showcased impressive futuristic tech, no secret was made of the fact that the company’s vision is currently sci-fi fantasy, and (at least) 10-15 years from any kind of new tech reality.

So, what is this new ‘Metaverse’? Turn back the clock to 1992 and the publication of American futurist novelist Neal Stephenson’s (b. 1959) sci-fi classic Snow Crash. In the novel’s near future, the quirkily named ‘Hiro Protagonist’ escapes his immediate reality (as a pizza delivery worker living in a shabby shipping container) and enters a new ‘metaverse’. This new reality is a 3D virtual environment inhabited by user-controlled avatars, as in a vast, multiplayer online game. Meta’s new ‘metaverse’ is similarly a vast, virtual environment accessed by headsets and neural interfaces. It is also, though, a new, augmented reality in which the known physical world is overlaid with digital information and vivid graphics. This new reality is accessed by Meta’s new ‘smart glasses’, an initial pair of which were unveiled by Facebook in collaboration with Ray Bans last September. More to come, we are promised.

New technology often raises new ethical, legal and safety concerns. This is true of Meta’s projected creation of a new ‘metaverse’ reality. Lest silicon valley’s enthusiastic rhetoric obfuscate the fact, Stephenson’s vision of the future is distinctly dystopian in character; indeed, much has been written on this over the last few months. However, this attention has primarily focussed on issues that plague current forms of social media, viz. questions of security, user privacy and subversive advertising. While such issues are vitally important, we should, I would urge, cast our net wider and consider the fundamental impact this projected new ‘metaverse’ might have on morality, relationships, spirituality and, indeed, on our view of humanity itself. These are big questions that invite deep reflection.

Before looking in detail at the ethical, relational, and metaphysical impact of Zuckerberg’s envisioned ‘metaverse’, a few general points.

First, morality, spirituality, and human identity are inseparable from our understanding and perception of reality. Simply put, we don’t know and can’t explain who we are or how we should live if we can’t first explain the nature of the world and our place within it. If the reality I inhabit is, for whatever reason, subjected to doubt – say, I come to believe, or am told, my sense of reality is a ‘just projection of my imagination’ – this will affect the way I interact with it and with what, or whomever, also inhabits it. To some, the new sci-fi ‘metaverse’ is thus a deeply ‘disruptive’ technology to be ‘handled with care’.

Second, to-date the ‘digital world’ of the internet has been sharply dichotomised from the reality of the physical world. It is taken for granted that the rules of the ‘real world’ do not apply online. The fact many online games revolve around players murdering each other scarcely raises an eyebrow! The basic dichotomy between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ holds because, however invested the player is in their gaming avatar, the two remain distinct: the avatar is never more than an on-screen, online character. But what happens when, as Meta proposes, we cease to be viewers and become insiders? It is not just our perception of reality that has changed, now our reality has been altered in ways we may, or may not, have intended or permitted. Should a company, we might ask, really control my identity?

Third, and here we begin to enter deeper water, though most of us would say a digital reality (mediated by headsets, sensors, and Meta’s swanky ‘smart glasses’) ‘isn’t real’ or ‘isn’t really there’, things aren’t technically and philosophically as easy as that. Our experience of reality is never ‘given’ or ‘neutral’: it is always the product of sensory input and complex neural processes. Our eyes perceive light of different wavelengths, and our brains translate this into intelligible images. Likewise, our ears discern vibrations, and our brains adapt these to interpret sound. But – and this is crucial – what we perceive is a fraction of the sensory data to which we are exposed. Our eyes grasp a miniscule slice of the electro-magnetic spectrum, our ears detect a narrow range of frequencies. What Meta promises and projects is an enhancement of our senses, so humans acquire capacities hitherto unimagined. But doesn’t that, we might ask, fundamentally change us?

Fourth, picking up this last point, Meta is premised on humanity’s innate ability to adapt and evolve. Consider: if sensory data isn’t neutral, neither are our brains tabula rasa. The way the contemporary human brain interprets signals reflects our evolutionary state. Our conceptual capacity is almost certainly greater than Neanderthals 40,000 years ago. But, by the same token, our intellectual and sensory abilities are likely to be inferior to our descendants 40,000 years from now. Viewed in this light, our labelling of psychopathic states or defective neurological conditions is primarily an expression of biological normativity; likewise claims to understand the world ‘as it really is’. In a ‘metaverse’, reality is adjusted, reprogrammed and relativised. Minority perspectives are reimagined as a majority interest: the normative is no longer deemed normal. An evolving revaluation of human judgment effectively subverts all knowledge and all morality: this leaves life as we know it vulnerable to grotesque reconfiguration.

One more general point, and here we must introduce talk of the ‘spiritual’: at one level, it seems obvious that the ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ worlds are distinct, that the physical exists in abstraction while the digital is product of human creation. Oh, that it was so easy! The fact is most religions posit a reality that (or who) is not material nor even spatial but ‘divine’; that is, a ‘God’ (or a non-personal equivalent such as Brahman), who is uniquely immaterial and non-spatial. Extrapolating from this, Eastern and Western mystical traditions project sceptical provisionality on perceived material reality, while the less religiously inclined can find in quantum mechanics a comparable sense of reserve about the adequacy, or comprehensiveness, of human perception. In short, both religion and science conclude that observation is conditional: reality, however it is defined, is never experienced in a neutral, unmediated fashion. ‘Physical’ and ‘digital’ may not adequately define every reality: like the ‘spiritual’, the new ‘metaverse’ proposes real new horizons.


Building on these general points, I want to suggest now five key issues raised by Meta’s proposed new ‘metaverse’.

First, as the last point reminds us, the dichotomy between the physical ‘real’ world and the digital ‘virtual’ world is grounded in misplaced confidence that the physical world is readily equated with ‘what really exists’. What’s more, if as we saw earlier, reality is experienced as a (limited) series of physical signals and interpreted according to certain (limiting) cognitive functions (so that the world does not quite exist in the way we assume), what is perceived as ‘reality’ is in fact ultimately an expression of consensus. To parody the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), ‘We think, therefore we are’, or ‘We think it is, therefore it is.’ In other words, my sense of what is ‘real’ or ‘true’ is labelled such because of a consensus of human opinion and experience. As history violently reminds us, however, when consensus shifts, reality is redefined, and values are renegotiated. In the new ‘metaverse’, inherited consensus is exposed to a new sense of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’.

Second, more practically or immediately, if this digitized ‘metaverse’ is operationalised in society, established modes of existence will require fundamental re-evaluation. If, say, graphic overlays inform a business meeting, to the extent that the chairs and table are made ‘real’, what is to prevent attendees being ‘virtual’ constructs voicing programmable perspectives? Or what would be lost – or gained! – at a birthday party if located not in one’s own (shabby) home but in a (perfect or ideal) ‘metaverse’ location, where sounds, smells and other guests are targeted responses to pre-programmed desires? In both cases, the digital experience is crafted, shared, evaluated, and to many substantially improved. On a sensory level, the light produced by the headsets or ‘smart glasses’ is as ‘real’ as the light reflecting off committee minutes or a supermarket birthday cake. At a societal level, however, the ‘metaverse’ fundamentally reconstructs the dynamics of human activity and empowers those who know how to create and/or use the new technology. As ever, ‘power’ is at issue when human realities are proposed, constructed, destroyed, or re-imagined.

Third, there are, as the recent history of Facebook reminds us, no ‘Morality Free Zones’. If human reality is to be redefined, we may justly ask according to what criteria? A new digitized ‘metaverse’ is not immune to moral judgments. For, if the dichotomy between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ is eroded, cyberspace is (again) legitimately exposed to critical evaluation and censure. The issues before Meta’s new ‘metaverse’ will be potentially even more urgent than online abuse and the brutalizing effects of anarchic ‘virtual’ games. ‘Virtual’ murder, rape, libel, larceny, blasphemy, and the like could – or, perhaps, should – now be accountable to the new reality of ‘metaverse’ courts and to new types of ‘real’ punishment.

Fourth, the ‘metaverse’ demands clarity with respect to human identity, rights, freedoms and responsibility. If we adopt the popular Cartesian model of personhood – the ‘ghost in the machine’, as British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) famously characterised it – it would seem self-evident that our ‘personhood’ and ‘rights’ are retained regardless of whether a mind is connected to a physical or digital body. The American philosopher Alan Gewirth (1912-2004) came to a similar conclusion in his Principle of Generic Consistency (1978). Simply put, he maintained that all purposive agents have rightsto freedom and wellbeing. The Australian digital ethicist Edward H. Spence extends this principle to digital avatars as representations of physical persons. Since the latter express goals in the virtual world through their avatars, they are acting purposively and thus have prime facie rights to freedom and wellbeing.

Furthermore, Spence argues, these rights to freedom and wellbeing are absolute and inalienable in relation to personal dignity. So, it is conceivable that an agent’s avatar could justifiably violate the generic rights of another by ‘killing’ them in a game if the code of the virtual world and end-user license agreement (EULA) permit such acts. However, to Spence, no agent is ever justified in undermining the dignity or self-respect of another through acts such as sexual assault or racial vilification. The fact that such acts do not always harm the victim physically when they take place offline demonstrates to Spence that the rules regarding such acts should equally apply to digital avatars. Degrading acts cause emotional and psychological damage to a victim. This is as liable to happen in the digital as the physical world. Moral principles are justly invoked to monitor and censure abuse in the ‘metaverse’.

Fifth, recognition of the absolute rights of individuals to dignity in the digital and physical worlds challenges popular perception. As aforementioned, to many gamers and social media users, rules in the ‘real world’ do not apply on the internet. Online sexist and racist abuse (after, for example, England’s defeat in Euro 2020) is pervasive. The ‘metaverse’ potentially increases – if not ‘realizes’ – the threat and forms of degrading abuse. A beta tester for Meta’s new ‘metaverse’ social media platform Horizon Worlds has already reported being groped by another user’s avatar. Far from being an ‘escape from reality’ or ‘ideal world’, the ‘metaverse’ risks becoming the projected hell of human consumption, fantasy and lust. Meta may in time face far more serious and complex problems than its parent Facebook.

So, to end, what of the ethical and metaphysical challenges facing Meta’s new ‘metaverse’? Few should doubt that the philosophical, ethical, and anthropological issues a ‘metaverse’ raises will tie academics, lawyers, and politicians in knots for decades! If ‘personhood’ and ‘reality’ are both malleable then what of integrity and accountability? If I can move, or change, my ‘self’ and ‘another’ in this new ‘metaverse’ with technological ease, what impact will this have on the way I see ‘myself’ and relate to ‘others’? Likewise, if ‘meta-users’ can interact with a digital reality through unused, and virtually unmediated, neuro-motor pathways, then what of their accountability for ‘accidents’ and other kinds of unintended damage to other ‘meta-users’? Will they be insured (if so, by whom and against what?) or dangerously habituated to a carefree ‘virtual’ existence that will infect their everyday life? And, if our cars, TVs, and coffeemakers are ‘willed’ to work, or landscapes changed on a whim, what of the impact this will have on ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thine’, in a new ever-present reality that is digitally interconnected and at my constant beck and call. To some, ‘self’ needs no more encouragement to be selfish! More profoundly, just as binary sexual identities are currently being challenged by transgender perspectives, what impact will the permutable identity of ‘metaverse’ avatars have on the way we assign rights and identities to humans? Likewise, our previously inalienable racial and ethnic identities may become malleable and even detachable. The risks of social carelessness and racial insensitivity are immense.

The former UK politician Nick Clegg’s (b. 1967) high-profile new career at the heart of Meta

During Meta’s launch event, Nick Clegg (b. 1967; Deputy UK PM 2010-2015), the company’s VP for Global Affairs and Communications, said the delay before Meta’s vision is realised will give governments time to ensure the ‘metaverse’ is covered by appropriate safeguards and laws. Such optimism clouds the uncertainty that surrounds Zuckerberg’s new venture. Nobody in 1983 could have foreseen the impact of the internet. In the same way, contemporary governments cannot predict the legislative requirements of a hypothetical ‘metaverse’. New technology drives new regulation, not the other way round. The prospect of the latter keeping pace with the former to ensure companies act responsibly from the outset is vanishingly small. Contemporary challenges already stretch lawmakers, as Frances Haugen’s testimony before the US Congress amply proved. As cynics might say or see in Facebook’s reinvention, Meta will probably also have to ‘virtually’ reinvent itself one day. Time will tell.

Dr Alexander Garton, Research Associate