Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, March 26, 2012

Examining the Moral Meaning of Memory

The true moral significance of memory alteration is not a simple thing to understand, and cannot be inferred from basic observations about its reliability and potential manipulability. Jonah Lehrer, in his recent Wired magazine article on memory — which I earlier discussed heredoes claim to be genuinely interested in the ethical questions raised by memory alteration:

Would the President’s Council [on Bioethics] have the same reaction to memory training? What about an more effective form of talk therapy? Or is it simply the idea of an amnesiac pill that we find so Orwellian and frightening? If so, why? We take pills to cheer us up. What’s wrong with taking a pill that might get at the root cause of the sadness? These aren’t rhetorical questions – I’m honestly interested in the answers.

But it’s hard to take Lehrer’s expressed interest seriously when this is the next thing he says: “In the meantime, progress continues apace. (What Feynman dismissively said about philosophers of science is also true of bioethicists, for better or worse: they are to scientists what ornithologists are to birds.)” So is Lehrer honestly interested in bioethics or isn’t he?

Unfortunately, it seems he isn’t. The questions he poses as apparently obvious rejoinders to the ethical inquiry in Beyond Therapy are all in fact addressed directly and plainly in the memory section of the report. To wit, here are four excerpts from the report:

We also know that individuals ‘naturally’ edit their memory of traumatic or significant events-both giving new meaning to the past in light of new experiences and in some cases distorting the past to make it more bearable. The question before us is how or whether new biotechnical interventions alter this inborn capacity to refine, reshape, and edit the way we remember the past.

What could be wrong with, or even just disquieting about, wanting to feel better about ourselves and our lives, and availing ourselves of the necessary assistance in doing so? If we may embrace psychotherapy for the same purpose, why should we not embrace mood-brighteners, especially if they are not only safe but also cheaper and more effective than ‘talk therapy’? Only a person utterly at peace with the world and content with himself would be beyond temptation at the prospect of having his troubles effortlessly eased.

...there are many people whose deep psychic distress precludes meeting obligations and forming close relationships, and for whom the proper use of mood-brighteners is the blessed gift that can restore to them the chance for a full and flourishing life.

...many Holocaust survivors managed, without pharmacological assistance, to live fulfilling lives while never forgetting what they lived through. At the same time, many survivors would almost certainly have benefited from pharmacological treatment.

And so forth. The Council’s entire report is characterized by this kind of effort to explore and present both the potential good and bad of biotechnological advancement, without firmly concluding in one direction or the other. Certainly there is reasonable room to argue with the analysis. But it’s hard to take seriously Lehrer’s “hey, I’m just asking some questions and I’m really interested in the answers” shtick when it seems based on a near-total lack of knowledge of the answers the ostensible opponents have already given, and is followed by a claim that those answers are actually irrelevant anyway.


Of course, while Lehrer professes interest in the bioethical questions raised by memory alteration, he has clearly already staked out a position in the debate in favor of memory alteration. The heart of his argument seems to be that, as he puts it, “we already tweak our memories — we just do it badly.”

One can get a sense of what’s wrong with this argument by seeing how quickly it devolves into this: “there is no clear line between the tweaks of ‘biotechnology’ and the changes that unfold every time we remember anything.” This is perhaps the most common argument in the transhumanist playbook. It goes basically like this: X new biotechnical intervention will totally change everything, so it’s great and we should embrace it — and there’s no reason not to because it’s actually no different from what we’re doing already.

This line of argument is linked to another favorite theme of transhumanists and other pro-enhancement writers: who we are as human beings is the result of an unplanned, chaotic, and messy sequence of events — whether those events were in our evolutionary past, shaping our genetic heritage, or just things that happened to us during our own lifetimes that we would rather not remember. Sometimes, as with Allen Buchanan’s discussion of evolution and human nature, the arguments raise deeply important questions about the moral meaning of human nature. But Lehrer’s application of neuroscience to the ethics of memory alteration is just a misunderstanding of the ethically significant questions.

Real ethical reflection on these issues would not try to dismiss them with one or two stale tropes. The personal, moral, and emotional significance of memory does not depend on it representing past experiences with perfect factual accuracy. And just because there are natural processes for “re-constructing” our past experiences, it by no means follows that techniques for purposefully ablating memories are morally uncontroversial. If we already tweak our memories, it seems just as possible that we could already sometimes do it well as do it badly. One would hope that in any case the goal would be to better understand the personal and moral significance of memories, and to learn how to integrate them into the broader meaning of our lives.


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