What Should You Do In A Simulated World? The Ethics Of A Dream

Ethics are tricky in the real world, but there is a surprising amount of evidence that we may actually be living in a simulation. If that is indeed true, we can only speculate on the creator and the motive behind such a complex and compelling trick. Who are they? Are we an experiment or entertainment? What would it mean to them if we figured it out? Do we risk being ‘turned off’ if we were break the proverbial ‘fourth wall?’ And perhaps an equally poignant question, does this change our code of ethics? Join us in the first of several thought experiments into a simulated Universe. Press ‘Save’ now.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. – Edgar Allen Poe.

Simulated Worlds And Real Ethics

Ethics are not simple. The Declaration of Human Rights sets out legally bound rules for what is considered reasonable behaviour, and for the most part it has led to a better world. The basic premise of these rules is that most people would agree with them in order to be fair to others. Legal systems, which differ by country, may interpret these rules differently (and some come up against the United Nations,) but the overall premise of law is the same; to hold everyone to an equal ethical standard where possible. Religions often run foul of these rules, but that’s for another day and a ballsier writer (or after some whisky.) We are all familiar with ethical dilemmas too, for example the famous philosophical question of ‘The Trolley Problem.’



The crux of The Trolley Problem is quite simple, when does murder become ethically permissible? Would you sacrifice one to save many others? Depending on your individual view it may never be okay to kill, but in a study by VSauce it found that most participants would not kill one to save many, even if they would claim otherwise. There are also multiple philosophical schools or ethics, including Utilitarianism which dictates that we must also provide for the majority even at the expense of the few. We consider such conundrums and hypotheses in a world of consequence, but what if suddenly those consequences seem to disappear? What might be ethical in a simulated world?

Ethics For Entertainment

If we are just a television show, such as the one experienced by Truman Burbank, then it may be wise to consider our audience. And like George reasoned in his discussion of a simulated universe, we may best judge their wants as reflective of our own. And when one of the top rated shows on television at the moment is Game Of Thrones , this is a little unsettling. Humans love drama, action, intrigue, love, hate, violence and explosions in our films. Jerry Bruckheimer makes a living from explosions. So, as economist Robin Hanson says, we should be as ‘entertaining as we can.’ Now here is the problem. If we assume that being ‘boring’ risks our continued survival, then commonly accepted ethics could be argued as an impediment. A progressive world full of love and communication is a worthy goal, but probably wouldn’t make good television. Earth would be ‘cancelled.’

ethics simulation alien television
What would be entertaining to an alien may be integral to our survival.

One could reason that our actions should be as dramatic and entertaining as possible to a lay watcher. Unfortunately this raises many questions, and if the world was suddenly to learn its best chance of existing was violence, drama and explosions, the result would likely fly in the face of common ethics. War would be entertainment, crime pay-per-view. and Alien minds could pay an extra season pass price to follow a criminal from sentencing to execution (but only after the cosmic watershed.) Although this is discussed jovially, it does cause pause for thought. What do you think Truman would have done if there was no door in the sea wall? And sadly, a utilitarian ethos would support mass war as long as more survived than died.

Fortunately there is an alternative explanation for a simulation, experiment. But, even then, we must be careful.

‘It’s the sad thing about entertainment, it’s not always about who is the best.’ – Jake Roberts.

Ethics For Experiment

First off, if an alien species were to create a simulation for their entertainment it wouldn’t be very ethical. Unless, at death, our code was transported to an eternal databank akin to an Abrahamic heaven. So we would have to assume an ‘ethical’ justification for our simulation experiment. So we can work with two extremes, either the creator’s ethics are like ours (or a better version,) or they are very different. You could even argue that, like The Purge, we could be a form of stress relief in a violent extraterrestrial society (so to speak.) So lets assume these greater beings have what we would call ‘good ethics.’

In this case the best we could do, in a rather Nietzsche perspective, is be the best we can in tune with what we perceive as ‘the ultimate good.’ Immanuel Kant proposed the ‘categorical imperative‘ to explain an inherent code of morality within humans that we must adhere to. Wouldn’t be much of an experiment if the creators loaded the dice like that. So lets assume we have a choice to extol or ignore these virtuous ideas, then run the simulation for a few billion years. You can see how making changes to the environment (such as drought or plague) and the insertion of strong beliefs (such as religion or cults,) would make for an interesting test. How would a large, diverse population respond. How would they change? What would be the outcome? The takeaway for the creators is clear, they have a working predictive model of anthropology, politics, psychology and social interaction by which to run their own species.

experiment ethics simulation
If we are an experiment, then how would we act to be valuable?

In this case, we may want to stay around as long as possible. To be useful to the experimenters (but this assumes having an inkling of their hypothesis..)  But that if that means ‘being aware’ of the experiment, it is immediately faulty. We walk on a tightrope.

‘To assume all the powers is not good for anybody. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All those experiments have a bad ending.’ – Rafael Correa

So What Do You Do?

So, in this potentially highly hypothetical situation with contrasting variables and contradicting endpoints, how do you live ethically in a simulation? My personal thoughts would be, if we are alive now, then we have fulfilled either the ‘entertainment’ or ‘experiment’ role. So you could just say ‘carry on.’ But when ‘just carry on’ means continue jihad, crime and war, our own ethics come into question. So I will propose a compromise, go with Neitszche. Do the best you can for the most you can, but be true to yourself. And in the end, there is a saving grace. Catharsis is stronger than division, and our alien viewers may like a happy ending. And our experimenters would probably find it worth learning from anyway… maybe.

Next time; If we could prove this is a simulation, should we?

What’s Next?

  • Learn more about a simulated universe.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.

Note: The arguments and assumptions presented here are in no means comprehensive. For example we have not considered the outcome of a simulation experiment, the role of bias, or indeed something as simple as its hypothesis. Furthermore we have not considered the full scope of ethical standpoints that an alien or creator species would have, what they may find entertaining. Each assertion is anthropocentric, and therefore is limited, and the causal nature of each premise based on plausibility rather than induction. This article is not designed to examine all these alternatives, but perhaps a book down the line could. Some of these subjects will be touched in the following articles, but I would wager more questions  would be raised than answered in such a short format. In essence, this article is designed to inspire you to pose your own answer to the riddle.

Media credits

  1. The Trolley Problem, provided courtesy of BBC Radio 4
  2. Featured image courtesy of Flickr
  3. Alien courtesy of Flickr
  4. Petri Dish courtesy of Flickr



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