You strap on a bizarre-looking headset that blankets your ears and eyes, pick up a controller in each hand, and within seconds are transported to a three-dimensional, virtual world inhabited by other people who are sharing the same experience. Virtual reality (VR) is one of many technologies that the term "metaverse" is designed to cover. Metaverse could refer to any other technology that recreates or augments real-world experiences with technology. Augmented reality (AR), where one sees a technical overlay to the real world, is another example. VR is, however, the most immersive experience available today, and it is an incredible opportunity to realize in software what all lawyers have spent their careers exploring: how to build a world that better matches our expectations of fairness.
This post will explain one type of metaverse (VR metaverses) and how users interacts with it. It will then explore the philosophy behind natural and human law in the real world. Finally, it will explain how the virtual world allows us to merge natural and human law to build spaces that conform to our moral judgments.
What Is a VR Metaverse?
VR metaverses are virtual, 3D spaces. Users can interact with these spaces in a number of ways, but the most compelling technology is a VR headset. Several companies offer these headsets, and below is an image of Meta's Oculus Quest 2 VR headset:
After a user straps the headset on his or her head, the two screens before their eyes display images while two small speakers adjacent to their ears play audio. He or she can manipulate objects in the virtual world with controllers that are held in each hand. If the user looks right, they see the virtual world to the right; if they walk forward, they move forward in the virtual world. A Meta promotional video demonstrates how the technology works. It is an immersive experience, and the technology is good enough that you can lose yourself in the virtual space.
Similar to a smartphone, there are apps you can download to your headset to experience different spaces and challenges. Not all are VR worlds. Some are video games where you are the protagonist, others are educational, and some are directed to productivity. The apps may or may not invite other human users to join you in the experience.
One popular VR metaverse is Meta's Horizon Worlds app, where users can explore thousands of 3D worlds while socializing with other users in those spaces. Below are a couple "selfies" from these virtual spaces:
Users can also create their own virtual worlds.
Other popular VR metaverses include VRChat and Rec Room.
Why Does the Real World Have Legal Systems?
I was attracted to study law for the same reason I was attracted to study technology: I wanted to know how it worked. We were born into a legal system that is thousands of years old that governs nearly every aspect of our lives, so understanding that system is (put lightly) important. What you learn as you work your way through law is that a more interesting question is why this system exists at all.
Life on Earth without any human legal system is still governed by laws. Natural laws, such as physical laws, constrain and govern all of our activity. For some unknown reason, massive things attract other massive things to them (gravity), light will not move faster than 299,792,458 m/s in a vacuum and the Planck constant will forever be 6.62607015 × 10-34 kg⋅m2/s. We have no clue where these laws come from or why they exist, but we are absolutely subject to them. There is no cheating physics, so every house has to obey the laws of thermodynamics.
Nothing in our natural state, however, prevents us from stealing from our neighbors. The laws of physics just do not address theft. (By acquiescence, you could argue that nature allows theft to happen.) Without a human legal system, no natural force stops us, and there would be no consequences for that action. The same observation applies to other criminal activity (e.g., assault and murder). Likewise, nature takes no position on civil liability. No natural law addresses a breached contract, infringed patent or misappropriated trade secret.
Whether by nature or nurture, something in us understands that a just society cannot allow theft or a broken formal promise. We are compelled to stop these activities from occurring and punish those who commit them. Because nature turns a blind eye, it is up to us to come up with a solution. What we have built in response is a legal system developed and administered by humans to prohibit and punish crimes as well as mandate what is fair in civil cases.
Our legal system, at least in part, adapt nature to our notions of justice. One way to think of human law is that it operates as a kind of overlay on the natural set of laws. This overlay attempts to fill gaps in natural law by imposing our set of moral judgments where we see fit. Nature ignores theft and breached contracts, but we think they are bad, so we prohibit them, punish those who commit those acts and attempt to make its victims whole.
When we take a step back and examine this "human law overlay," we get a clear picture of a society's moral judgments. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race." (Say what you will of lawyers, but the remainder of the quote reads, "The practice of [the law], in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men." (Id.)) What humans believe is right is reflected in our legal systems – whether those values are also reflected in nature is a matter of chance.
Unlike natural law, our legal system is not perfect: people regularly commit crimes and escape civil liability. But what if we could do more than overlay our legal system on the natural world? What if the two systems could be merged to create a world where its natural laws perfectly reflect our moral judgments?
Unifying Law in the Metaverse
The metaverse allows us to code natural law in a virtual space, so natural and human law can be integrated in remarkable ways. In the metaverse, the speed of light could be variable and massive objects could repel rather than attract one another. The physics of the metaverse are at the developer's whim. Because natural laws in the metaverse are editable in a way they are not in the real world, they can also reflect our moral judgements.
For example, no natural law prohibits Alice from stealing Bob's car. Because she is physically able to steal the car, our legal system needs to identify her, prove that she committed the crime, establish some punishment and attempt to make Bob whole again by returning the car or ordering restitution. The physics of the metaverse could absolutely restrict Alice from taking Bob's car. In effect, there is a new natural law in that metaverse: you cannot exercise control over another's possessions. Alice can no more easily violate that law than we can escape gravity's pull.
As another example, Carlton formally promises to buy Derek's virtual home for 0.001 bitcoin (BTC) if the price of 1 BTC exceeds $30,000 within the next 90 days. The entire transaction lives in the metaverse's digital realm: crypto currency is being exchanged for digital real estate upon a triggering event. Such transactions are the basis of smart contracts, and there is no opportunity to breach because the agreement automatically executes, as would computer code. Carlton and Derek's transaction becomes part of the fabric of their metaverse's legal system, and executes automatically if the triggering event occurs.
Metaverses are already merging moral judgments to their set of natural laws. While you are strapped into VR, it can be jarring when another user gets close to or sneaks up on you (they appear to be right in front of you). To solve this problem, Meta introduced a Personal Boundary feature that creates a four-foot boundary around you that others cannot cross. No such rule exists in nature, and we learned as much when jurisdictions tried to implement a six-foot mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic with varying success. Meta's Personal Boundary rule, however, will succeed because Meta's developers control all aspects of the metaverse.
Lawyers are beginning to turn their attention to the host of legal questions that will arise as metaverses become more popular (e.g., how will ownership or disputes work in the metaverse?), but we should not overlook that the metaverse provides an opportunity to do more than just apply the law to an exciting new technical field. We can do in the virtual world what we can never hope to accomplish in the real world – we can bend the virtual world's parameters to match our moral judgments and build a space that by its nature executes our understanding of what is just and fair.