The Technological Future of Behavioral Legal Ethics?

The advent of Virtual Reality (VR), and the more recent exploration of Augmented Reality (AR), is creeping forward in law schools, with only a handful of schools experimenting with the technology, according to a recent article in the ABA Journal. As the article notes, Virtual Reality, for those not familiar with it, “involves the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment, immersing a user in a 3D experience.” Augmented Reality, which has received a lot of media attention since the release of the game Pokémon Go, is largely still in its infancy and, according to one source, refers to technology that “superimposes computer-generated images on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite image.”  Announcements of new releases in the AR field, especially of Microsoft’s Hololens 2, have created excitement about the potential for more interactive immersive experiences for the user in the future.

I have been interested (from afar, as I am no expert) about the use of this technology for law school pedagogy, so it’s gratifying to see that some schools have already started to experiment.  As the ABA Journal notes, for instance, students at University of North Texas Dallas College of Law have used VR technology to stage a 360-degree crime scene.  And the University of Oklahoma has created the Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory “to provide students with technologically advanced immersive education experiences.”

But what about technology and legal ethics? As those of us involved with behavioral legal ethics know, much of our work is about exploring the gap between deliberative consideration of the rules of legal ethics, which dominates much of legal ethics pedagogy, and the ways that people actually make ethical decisions, as demonstrated by the large and growing body of behavioral ethics research. Can VR and AR technology help our students (and lawyers in CLE programs) experience the power of cognitive biases and heuristics, and the social pressures that contribute to unethical behavior, in ways that traditionally have been unavailable in legal education?

Professor Sylvie Delacroix from Birmingham Law School recently posted a co-authored paper (forthcoming in Modernising Legal Education), entitled Virtually Teaching Ethics: Experiencing the Discrepancy between Abstract Ethical Stands and Actual Behaviour using Immersive Virtual Reality, that wonderfully encapsulates this discussion and explores the possibilities of Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) and similar approaches in the future in ethics education. The first part of her paper reviews the dichotomy between System 1 and System 2 thinking, citing leading researchers on the difference between intentional and unintentional responses to ethical dilemmas:

“It is often assumed that when faced with an ethical dilemma, individuals recognise it for what it is and respond to it intentionally, preferably (in the case of law) by applying the relevant rules of conduct. However, unethical behaviour often arises without intention to act unethically, either because an individual is unaware of the situation or unaware of the contextual influences. These ‘blind spots’ mean that being taught the rules of conduct is unlikely to improve ethicality. Most people routinely fail to recognise the ethical components of decisions and succumb to common cognitive biases; as a result many responses to ethical dilemmas are characterised by ignorance rather than intention” (p. 5-6).

Professor Delacroix then connects these observations to the limitations of current ethics instruction, noting that “[t]he failure of students to see when they are personally prone to ethical blind spots produces a key challenge for ethics education, that of ‘inducing students to act in an ethical manner when faced with real challenges’” (p.9).

Then — and this is what I find most fascinating — Professor Delacroix describes a module that she designed for teaching her legal ethics class of LLM and LLB students, in which the students engaged with IVR to experience a difficult ethical decision in a simulated environment at University College London. As she describes it,

“At an early stage within both modules (week three) students were given the opportunity to experience the CAVE – the highly IVR environment managed by the University’s Computer Science Department. The CAVE projects images in real-time onto the surrounding walls and the floor. Specialised eyewear gives users the illusion of 3D objects appearing within and beyond the walls of the CAVE, whilst a head-tracking unit monitors movement to ensure the images displayed remain in the correct perspective.” (p.12-13).

The ethical dilemma posed in the CAVE involved a variation of the well known Trolley Problem, this time involving an elevator ride in which participants must decide whether to sacrifice one life in order to save five. Students who participated voluntarily in the IVR experience, on the whole, reported it to be positive. Many of the students also noted — and for me this is the key to this type of pedagogy — that their actual reactions during the CAVE experience differed from how they thought they would act when considering the question more theoretically prior to the immersive experience. In other words, the students learned how their anticipated ethics and actual ethics often do no align — the key insight that behavioral ethics has to offer.

Professor Delacroix’s work demonstrates that teaching legal ethics through IVR technology is possible. While there are still obstacles to overcome (the technology still needs to advance and the relative merits and possible downsides of using IVR technology in the classroom need to be considered), we might be seeing in Professor Delacriox’s work the future of ethics education — a future where students will be able to experience and explore the multifaceted, three-dimensional nature of ethical decision-making in real time. An exciting prospect indeed!

Here is the abstract of Professor Delacroix’s article:

The CAVE experience is an immersive virtual reality (IVR) environment employing high- resolution, 3D video and audio technology. Using the CAVE, researchers at University College London designed an IVR scenario intended to echo the logical structure of a traditional ‘trolley scenario’ problem, and deployed this activity within an undergraduate Law and Ethics Course. In this chapter we explore how the use of virtual reality can offer students an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on the dissonance between the behaviour they adopt when faced with an ethical dilemma, and the theoretical stance they propose during class discussion. We explore how this personalisation gives rise to sustained student engagement borne out of a desire to understand the discrepancy between principle and practice. Our chapter considers the potential of IVR technology when teaching ethics to future and current professionals. We conclude by considering how such technology can offer more dynamic opportunities for student reflection and how IVR might be sensibly integrated into a broader legal ethics curriculum.

(update, 8/4/19: For anyone interested in the use of VR to re-consider classic experiments in social psychology, here is a fascinating paper discussing VR and the famous Milgram experiments on obedience.  And here is short blog post in Scientific American about the study).



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