Say, for the sake of this question, the simulation hypothesis is real. Are we then hurting "persons"/conscious beings in "our simulations" - video games - when we fight them? Why (not)? If so, is this unethical? Think for example about shooting an alien in the game No Man's Sky.

Edit/answer on the comment of Joseph Weissman: My reasoning is like this:

  1. It is unethical to harm a person (with a person being everything that has the status of a person).
  2. By the simulation hypothesis (assuming it's true), everything around us (everything that we know of), is simulated.
  3. By 1 and 2, all persons we know of are simulated. So it's unethical to harm the simulated persons around us.
  4. A game is a simulation just like we are in a simulation, so the game has simulated persons.
  5. Therefore - by anology - it's unethical to harm the persons in a video game.

I know that the premises - besides the simulation hypothesis itself - are debatable, but that's the reason I asked the question in the first place.

I was also thinking that the characters in the video game differ because they have far less to no intelligence, that much of it is scripted. But I neither have a proof that we ourselves aren't scripted, with free will being an illusion. Also, how intelligent does a character in a simulation/video game has to be to have personhood then? I think this is a case of the sorites paradox.

Just to be sure, please note that this question is not about whether the simulation hypothesis is true or how likely it is to be true. It is about (one of the) consequences if the simulation hypothesis is true. It's also not a question about violence in games in general.

  • 2
    This is really interesting territory, but I'd be curious if you could develop the question a little more... What has your research uncovered so far? Why do you think there might be a connection between the simulation hypothesis and the ethics of simulated harm?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 19:08
  • I've edited my question. :)
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 12:47
  • "For the sake of this question" you'd have to tell us. Your argument equivocates on "simulated" to get where it does, but that is just as well since the "simulation hypothesis" does that already. And that is the problem: the "simulation hypothesis" has no consequences because it can be reconciled with anything.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 2:16

5 Answers 5


I'm going to tackle this more directly than I feel the other answers have done.

Consider the following: broadly construed, harm in the ethical sense is something that can only happen to an agent - an entity with certain cognitive capacities (the ability to feel pleasure/pain, make decisions, etc. - incapacitated persons are a legal corner case I'm myself leery of). You can't, in an ethical sense, "hurt" a rock unless you believe the rock would experience something negative as a result of your actions. You can't declare it "wrong" to break a rock by virtue of it being a rock simpliciter. If it's wrong to break a rock, it's wrong because it infringes on somebody's property rights, it contributes to the destruction of a living habitat, et cetera.

In the same way, we impose restrictions on the sorts of violence that are permitted with the intent to prevent harm; we want to minimize negative experiences, to make it so that thinking and feeling things are not inflicted with unpleasant qualia. Thus there's nothing wrong with acting violent to a rock, excepting the aforementioned cases. Thus, there's nothing wrong with shooting Nazi zombies in Call of Duty - because we have no reason to believe that the zombies "feel" anything, that they possess any sort of agency.

But, this is not a claim which finds its philosophical origins in the mere fact that the zombies are "simulated". That, I will make explicit, is irrelevant. I will disclaim that the following is sourced on my studies into philosophy of mind - I'm not pulling this out of a magic hat.

The Mind

What are the kinds of things that "feel"? How does it happen that I, for example, am able to experience emotions and sensations? If I see a red apple, there's more happening than just optical processing of light being reflected by the apple's skin; there is additionally something it is like to see red, something it's like to be me seeing the apple. That's my "first person subjective experience", and it belongs to me alone. It's the existence of this first person subjective experience, I'd say, that motivates us to treat ourselves as agents. We want to minimize harm amongst humans because each human possesses an intricate, highly complex first person experience, and we consider these experiences valuable. Similarly, we want to minimize harm to "sufficiently cognitive" non-humans (with the boundary debated), because cats and dogs definitely feel pain and have their own experiences.

But then, where do these varied experiences come from? What do we have in common with other animals, and potentially other non-biological structures which might have experiences - which might be conscious? I'm not going to dive into the colossal philosophy of mind debate. I'll just summarize the consensus position: unless you believe in souls as distinctly separate from and unrelated to physical bodies (and not many philosophers these days do) or are an idealist, you'd be rational to believe that consciousness is, one way or another (there are many ways) tied to/derived from our physical forms. That is, I am conscious because my bodies, and particularly my nervous system, behaves in such a way that it "generates" my conscious experience (the details are debated). Because my neurons are connected to one another in such-and-such a way, and because the electromagnetic configuration in the whole matrix is arranged in such-and-such a way, I am conscious.

The puzzle then becomes to figure out what these "magical", consciousness-generating configurations are - and the best ideas we have right now simply suggest that a sufficiently complex organization of flowing information will generate some level of consciousness. Given how subjective consciousness inherently is, it's in practice more or less impossible to even be sure of what things might lead to consciousness. And hence, theory and practice collide. How can we, for example, know if a robot may ever be conscious if any hypothetical experience the robot has is totally private to it?

The answer, of course, is that we do the same thing as we do for each other. I in fact have no way of knowing for certain that I'm not the only subjective experience in the world - you might all be philosophical zombies. But I trust that you're not, because things work out more easily that way with my ethics. I treat you like you feel, and you treat me the same - because we all demonstrate sufficiently complex behaviour that, as far as we can tell, we're probably conscious agents.

The Simulation

Now suppose we're all immersed in some higher-order simulation. Nothing changes. We still exhibit incredibly complex behaviour, we still possess (or appear to possess) our first person subjective experiences, and we still feel and act as agents. Being in a simulation has no bearing on our moral worth. We warrant treatment according to our established rules because of how we behave and demonstrate a capacity for agential behaviour.

Return next to the Nazi zombies I've been shooting up. Watch how they scramble haplessly around the building and show minimal behavioural complexity. The most complicate decisions they make are "take this route or take that route?" They don't even have anything like a pain subroutine - they just charge at me until one of us is down. I'm allowed to be violent to them not because they're simulated, but because they're simple. They don't give me any reason to believe that they feel, so I'm under no pragmatic obligation to be nice to them.

In short, we sanction violence in our video games because there's no reason to believe we're causing any pain, given how simple we create our characters. But, if we're in a simulation ourselves, that changes nothing about our own behavioural, functional, neurological complexity, all of which indicate that we each possess a subjective experience worth protecting.

Sorry if that was a bit of a ramble. I get a bit excited about mind stuff.


Assuming our universe is a simulation, it is an incredibly more complex simulation (and contains far more information) than anything we have in our "video games". This difference in complexity extends by default to us (human beings) vs the characters in those video games. In fact, we (humans) are elaborate enough that we appear to have free will (even if in reality our actions are completely deterministic) and possess a sense of selfhood. I would argue that the characters in video games resemble simpler forms of life (in our "natural" world) far more closely than they resemble humans. You could in fact argue that the simulated characters are probably more simpler than even very small organisms such as worms judging by how complicated it is to simulate the behavior of C. elegans.

But more importantly there is no evidence that they (the characters) posses any self-referential loop (or some other mechanism) that makes them sentient. The fact that we are both (human beings and our video game characters) simulations on its own does not mean much; a rock and a human are both made of atoms, but we do not extend them the same ethical rights as us. You would have to judge them by the characteristics mentioned above. So the ethical dilemma of harming video game characters is sort of equivalent (even if that) to whether we are hurting an insect when we kill it ? I would not say hurting an insect is the same as hurting a conscious human being, and if you take that to be true, I would extend that logic to the characters in our current video games.

But we may be faced with ethical questions once our simulations begin to look more "real" and the characters show more "complexity". This "complexity" is independent of whether the characters have free will (since there is a possibility that all our actions are in fact deterministic) but I do think it would involve signs of them having sentience. And in that case, by Kant's universal morality, we should apply the same ethical standards to our simulations (the characters in our video game) as we would to living things with roughly equivalent magnitude of sentience.

The progression from a non sentient being to a sentient being may very well be analogous to sorites paradox. In fact, the course of human evolution has been of a similar nature !

  • Thanks for your answer. The problem I see, is how much more complexity is needed? I think this is a case of the sorites paradox. Or are there discrete criteria that have to be met?
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 12:54
  • Edited my answer to make it more precise. Specifically, tried to provide some concrete criteria rather than just referring to complexity. Good question and hope this helps !
    – user19400
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 19:06
  • It might be interesting to mention that self-reference and self-referencing loops are already used in programming on a daily basis, ever since we started to use object-oriented programming. The escher print won't impress a programmer who wrote recursive functions, classes that reference themselves via "this" pointer and encapsule private members referenced only by the instance of of the class that contains them. In other words, I think it's time to look for "some other kind of mechanism" if we want to define conciousness in yet another way that preserves our feelings of human superiority.
    – Estharon
    Commented Sep 3, 2016 at 20:26
  • @Estharon I agree. I do not think a strange loop alone would account for conciseness and there are plenty of examples of self referential loops in mathematics and by extension in CS. But I do think you can make a case that consciousness makes use of some self referential mechanism similar to a strange loop.
    – user19400
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 0:14
  • @Haider Yes, self-reference is definitely one of the key aspects of human intelligence. It completely pervades the way we think. But is it also a vital element of consciousness, I wonder. In fact, I think that in order to to understand consciousness, we might have to completely separate those two concepts, although that would require a proper understanding of consciousness... Keys and boxes, all the way down.
    – Estharon
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 0:50

Is it unethical to harm a person? If so, all violence is forbidden, and that is a questionable assumption. (And one that is pernicious: deeply and clearly sexist against men, in my opinion -- it dishonors only the male half of whole generations of people who had limited choices and managed them reasonably.)

No war, clearly. Would aggressive policing be moral? It seems to dedicate one to absolute pacifism. It would clearly eliminate boxing and football as sports. It might even proscribe risky surgery -- you are cutting the person after all. It might even prevent such things at the behest of the person being operated on.

So I would argue that violence is not forbidden. What matters in the issue of violence is the point. And in that, violence does not differ from a wide range of other actions.

So is the point of your destruction of those creatures actually bad for them? Does it somehow degrade their existence? What existence? They were created for the express purpose of being violated by you.

They have the same standing as cows. We created them to be destroyed by us to meet a preference of our own. The alternative would not be a better life for them, but their nonexistence. For most non-vegetarians, this logic of "I brought you into this world, and I will take you out" is actually pretty sound. From a point of view centered on autonomy as a primary value, it only doesn't apply to humans because we do in fact have the power to make more of our lives through our own choices. Cows and Space Invaders don't.

So, no. The damage to the simulated creatures would not be relevant even if they were not simulated. But that does not mean that we are just fine here.

The degree to which we actually identify with or against the simulated beings affects a different set of simulations: the ones we run in our own heads to model potential outcomes and make moral decisions. To the degree that we train ourselves to be less humane by violating beings to which we attribute sentiments, we are changing our natural reactions to other beings to which we attribute sentiments.

If this is all a simulation, and we are naturally given to respond to the simulated people around us with empathy, it seems dangerous to mess with that. If nothing else, we see that the people around us who lack empathy do not produce pleasant states of being for us, and we are not disposed to treat them well. So it seems inappropriate, if we wish to be treated well, to degrade our own empathy.

This means that our interactions with simulated beings should still be undertaken with care. Most of us would not simply blow up a cow because we felt like it. There is a reason for that. What that reason is, is not as important as its existence. If blowing up Space Invaders genuinely has the same degrading impact that blowing up that cow would, we should consider it equally immoral.


I think the key assumption here is "a game is a simulation just like we are in a simulation." The exact logical meaning of "just like" is key for deciding whether simulated violence is unethical.

You have defined a class "person" in your logic. If that class includes the "simulated people" in a game, then it would be unethical to commit violence against them. However, does this class include simulated people is the question.

If the simulation we exist in and the game are "just like" each other as in indistinguishable, then there would be no way we could define the class "person" to include those we typically think of as people and exclude the simulated people. However, "just like" may be an overstatement. I can recognize the difference between my copy of Doom and my copy of the Sims. Those simulations are distinguishable. Now it may be hard for me to define "person" such that my sims are people but the characters in Doom are not. However, when we consider the difference between the simulation we live in and the simulation of the game, there is a noticeable difference: the simulation of our world contains the game as a proper subset.

Because of this, we can draw a distinction between the "people" in this world, who are part of the simulation we exist in, and "simulated people" in the games, who are part of a simulation that is a proper subset of our simulation.

Whether or not this logic is valid is entirely based on whether or not you feel justified in restricting "personhood" to only include those members of the simulation you are a part of. Whether this is valid or not is not part of any of the assumptions, so we are at a decision point. What do you think?


Wouldn't the simulation hypothesis erase the concept of guilt altogether? If none of us are real, including the people around one and including oneself, doesn't any kind of ethic based on the value of life just disintegrate? After all, the value of simulated life is just simulated too.

Consider this for a moment. Two worlds. One changed. One is still the same. For which world do we redefine our morals? The one that changed.

I think that the true question is not if we should apply our morals to video games, but why we should not apply the morals used in video games to a simulated reality. Well, basically it's the same question from a different perspective and will yield the same answers defining boundaries of conscience, but it highlights the conclusions that are more worrysome to me than an existence that at least technically ceases whenever I turn off the device.

I say technically, because many of them, you couldn't kill without erasing my memory. They only ever truly existed in the perception of the player, or reader, not in the machine you turn off and on without consequence (if you saved, that is). They are basically immortal in my mind, as long as I remember their "lives". Many others, I never even recognized as more than a target in the first place. You wouldn't want to be one of them. They are not just dead, but erased from all forms of existence.

We already developed a stance on morals in games that would then apply to reality: Morals count only if you immerse yourself to the point where you feel that they do. I've destroyed billions of enemies in Galaga-style space shooters and other simple games, but tore myself up over the decision to sacrifice Kaidan or Ashley in Mass Effect. And I didn't even like either of them much. These different styles of play do not interfere with each other, I apply one I deem fitting for the game.

So what is to keep someone else, who decides to play the "game" differently, from playing it the way I'd play GTA2?

  • tried to edit your answer to correct spelling errors but this stupid system doesn't allow that i have to change at least 6 or 10 characters. Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:09
  • @robertbristow-johnson If they bother you that much, i'll correct them, and find something else to improve or so I'll get over ten characters ;)
    – Estharon
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:13
  • The crux of your argument seems to be that "none of us are real". But why is it any less real to exist in a video game? Organized collections of electromagnetic fields accumulating into intelligent behaviour, however designed and contained, seem pretty real to me.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 15:57
  • @commando I disagree. You need to make a clear distinction between simulating space and matter from which intelligence emerges, or the act of simulating the intelligence itself. Only the latter is relevant in a comparison to video games. And looking at the question, you can see that in his scenario, the people themselves too are simulated, and therefore not real. Thanks for giving me the "Watson" to clarify that detail.
    – Estharon
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 19:35
  • That's really not how this works at all, believe me. The entire doctrines of functionalism and behaviouralism were build ups to contemporary physicalism and reductive/non-reductive emergentism. From all of those, we know that at a sufficient grain, there's no difference between the simulation of intelligence and intelligence itself. The question asks about the simulation hypothesis, i.e. what if we are simulated. And obviously we possess the grain required for intelligence, hence our... intelligence. The other answer is correct in pointing out that our apathy toward game characters is...
    – commando
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 19:46

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