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Thomas Noah: How Happy is the Blameless Vestal's Lot?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 3:00pm

Claudia Cohen Hall, 402

Many of us have memories that, at least some of the time, we'd rather not have. These memories don't rise to the level of causing trauma or some other disorder, but they are painful nonetheless and can have a profound and pervasive impact on our lives. In particular, we have memories of people whom we have hurt or who have hurt us or both. The people I have in mind are those who stand or stood in some close relation to us -- lovers, mentors, friends, and family members. Sometimes we wish to and sometimes we succeed at no longer having to directly interact with these people, but the trace of the person remains with us in memory. If there existed technology to eliminate the memories of these people, should we do so? We will use Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) as a backdrop for a conversation on the ethics of neurocognitive enhancement -- in particular, on the ethics of memory blunting. Emerging biotechnologies offer the possibility of memory blunting, and we can see the path toward more sophisticated technologies that allow greater control. What is involved in blunting memories of former lovers, mentors or friends or of family members whom we no longer engage with and whom we may like to forget? Is there something about the nature of humanity that makes all enhancement applications of memory blunting technology ethically problematic? Could we use such technology and still live both admirable and recognizably human lives? Are such concerns examples of hand-wringing from a humanistic ethic whose time has passed?