February 27, 2020
Shot of Mark Fagiano

Should you steal medicine to save someone’s life? That question is the core of the Heinz dilemma. Thanks to Dr. Mark Fagiano, you may soon experience the dilemma in virtual reality.

An example of philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, the Heinz dilemma is a thought experiment on what someone should do in the face of a moral crossroads. A woman is sick and her husband Heinz has taken her to a doctor who has the only drug able to help. The drug, however, is too expensive. Should Heinz steal the medicine or not, and why?

Using virtual reality, Fagiano places you into Heinz’s shoes and experience the consequences and moral quandry for yourself. Fagiano’s virtual reality version of the dilemma is virtually the same—you are with your brother in the hospital and a doctor tells you there is a cure for your brother’s sickness, but it is very expensive. After that interaction is where the thought experiment ends and the virtual reality experience begins. You can explore the room and find the medicine. You can choose whether to steal the medicine or not and tangibly see the effects of that action. He achieved this through the help of his students and the UCF Medical School’s Clinical Skills and Simulation Center.

“The idea here is to create opportunities for students to have embodied, simulated experiences in which they make moral decisions before they reflect upon the ethical theories that are relevant to such decisions,” Fagino noted. “In philosophy, we have these reflective mental games called “thought experiments.” These are interesting, but as abstractions taken from the context of everyday real and embodied experiences, their function is limited. With these virtual reality experiences, we are hoping to create a type of an ‘ethics lab’ that will allow students to widen their perspectives about morality and to improve their lives.”

Fagiano worked with students from his Ethical Theory course to make this happen. One of the students involved, Derwin Sanchez, had this to say about the experience: “The most fun part of this project was coming up with the different possible outcomes for each decision the viewer would select. It made the Heinz Dilemma much more real to me, since I actually got to act out the outcomes for different choices.” Fellow student Max Crippen agrees, adding “I think this virtual reality experience will help show people whether or not their morals are in line with their principles and really make them think about what is right and wrong.”

You can experience a browser-based version of Fagino’s virtual reality Heinz Dilemma here. He hopes to share the experience on virtual reality platforms Oculus and Vive in the near future.