The Morality of Memory Erasure
In 2004, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s highly acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind debuted in theatres. The film’s cult following can be attributed to incredible performances by its lead actors, its incredibly cohesive yet unorthodox romantic science fiction plot, and its brutally honest portrayal of the modern romance. However, undoubtedly one of its more captivating qualities is the enticing possibility of memory erasure. In the movie, a woman acts impulsively and goes to a medical center that provides for a service that can selectively delete memories. After having the procedure and erasing her memories of her lover, her lover feels jilted and decides to have the same procedure done onto himself to erase the memory of her. What follows is an amalgam of philosophical foreplay and heart wrenching romance. The realms of the science fiction of the past and the science of the present are no longer so mutually exclusive. Some of the technologies that seemed so implausible a decade ago are slowly becoming a reality. When the movie was made, memory erasure was mostly if not purely science fiction, but with the advent of technology and its rapidly growing pace, selective memory erasure can become a reality within a few decades’ time. In 2009, neuroscientists noticed a link between memory retention and a substance in the brain called PKMzeta. They were able to create a drug called ZIP that interferes with PKMzeta, and effectively erasing memories and learned behaviors in mice. The science holds a lot of promise in the coming decades. Assuming that there was currently a noninvasive medical procedure that could safely, efficiently, and effectively erase one’s memories, is it morally permissible to undergo such a procedure?
A Utilitarian Approach
With safe, efficient, and effective memory erasure possibilities, the applications are endless. By having the procedure done, an individual’s suffering is eliminated whilst creating no net harm on others. With an aggregate positive net balance of happiness, why not allow the procedure to occur? Victims of domestic abuse, rape, post traumatic stress disorder, and an array of other psychological problems: all of the pain and suffering one would necessarily undergo due to these misfortunes can be instantly negated at the expense of no one.
Imagine the hardships of a prisoner of war; the brutality of the torture he would have experienced and witnessed is life scarring. Even after returning home from war, the horrors of the day to day struggle as a prisoner would haunt him endlessly. Yet, the torment would instantly fade away and he would be able to undergo a simple memory erasing procedure. By deleting the memories of being a captive, the veteran soldier can go on his with his daily life unencumbered by the atrocities contained within his memories. What’s even more appealing is that the procedure harms no third party in the process. One may argue that with such a safe and viable procedure that can only increase net pleasure, we should have a right to its availability to the general populace.
However, the extreme power that one would obtain from misusing this technology is staggering. Following the principles laid out above in the basic approach, having the technology readily available allows for criminals and governmental agencies to abuse the power. Criminals can forcibly erase the memories of witnesses of crimes in an attempt to guarantee themselves of their freedom. With the erasure of one’s memories and no supplemental evidence to support, the reality of a situation cannot be proven. It is almost as if erasing one’s memory is altering reality, especially for those whose memories were erased. Governmental agencies can torture their enemies for information and easily erase the memories of their violation. In fact, governments with ill intentions can not only feasibly, but easily and effectively, create an Orwellian...
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