Rage against the Empathy Machine Revisited: The Ethics of the Empathic Affordances of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) has been designated as the "ultimate empathy machine" due to its alleged ability to powerfully immerse users in another's perspective. As VR has attracted growing attention, criticism of its alleged 'empathic superpowers' has also gained strength. Critics have recently argued that the empathic-VR vision is ethically flawed since it is misleading and denies non-communicable aspects of the Other. Moreover, several scholars argue that VR empathy rhetoric in fact exploits the marginalized targets of empathy, turning them to objects "identity tourism" for the privileged.
The paper revisits these claims, arguing that they rely on empathy notions that are dominant in traditional art-media, while overlooking VR's unique experiential affordances. Drawing on psychophysiological evidence, it argues that the ethical significance of VR lies in the unique ways in which it manipulates the user's body scheme via multisensory stimulation. These manipulations result in unprecedented empathy-related perceptual and conceptual transformations whose ethical implications require new ethical framing.