Imagine a procedure whereby you could rid yourself of troubling memories.Suppose that you could have a particular person or traumatic event erased from your mind. This is the basis for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where just such a process helps rid tormented souls of the memories of their lost loves. The film prompts a number of philosophical questions, such as: If the science-fiction-like technology shown in Eternal Sunshine was available, ought we to use it? Under what circumstances, if any, would we be justified in erasing our memories?
To begin with, we might consider a straightforward utilitarian response. Utilitarianism, developed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), is an influential moral theory which states that an act is morally right inasmuch as it maximises overall happiness (or pleasure) and minimises overall suffering (or pain). As such, if erasing a painful memory would lead to a lessening of suffering and an increase in happiness then, according to utilitarian reasoning, it is morally permissible. In Eternal Sunshine, Clementine, Joel and Mary opt for the procedure in the hope that it will indeed ease their suffering, however, this seems not to be the case. In fact, if anything, it tends to make things worse. This highlights one of the major problems with Utilitarianism, in that it is impossible to determine the full consequences of any particular course of action. How do we know that we will not, by erasing a particular episode, end up losing more than we gain by, for example, failing to learn a valuable lesson or doing harm to others? One philosopher who takes issue with Utilitarianism is Robert Nozick (1938-2002). In his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1971) Nozick provides the following thought experiment:
"Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires? Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?"
Nozick claims that other things do indeed matter. The reason he believes that we should not choose to plug in is because we have a duty to live in accordance with the facts – that what really matters is the truth, and not merely the feeling of happiness or pleasure. We can consider the memory removal technique in Eternal Sunshine as a sort of reverse experience machine – one which takes away real experiences rather than providing false ones. The result is that opting to have memory removal is akin to choosing to plug in to the experience machine as both would entail ‘living a lie’.
The major alternative to Utilitarianism is Kantianism, originating with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). For Kant, the consequences of an action should have no bearing whatsoever on its rightness of wrongness. Rather, moral actions are those which are done out of the duty that we have to ourselves and others. We must, according to Kant, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (Groundwork, 1785).
Persons, on the Kantian approach, must never be viewed instrumentally. Consider the example of lying: suppose that you could get something you wanted, just by telling a lie. Kant argues that this would be impermissible as, by doing so, you would be using another person as a mere means to achieving your end goal. For Kant, human autonomy, integrity, and dignity should never be violated and by lying to someone you limit their power and freedom. The same goes for our treatment of ourselves: if we were to undergo memory removal we would, in effect, be lying to ourselves and in doing so would limit our own ability to act freely in the future. This is evident in Eternal Sunshine where Clem, Joel and Mary, unable to learn from their mistakes, all go on to repeat the same behaviour over again. As such, it seems that Kantianism (in contrast to Utilitarianism) would prohibit the memory removal procedure in Eternal Sunshine – no matter what its consequences are. The Kantian view puts us in a position to better understand Mary’s actions at the end of the film when she feels she has a duty to let people know about their past procedures, even if doing so may cause them pain and suffering.
I earlier described the technology in Eternal Sunshine as ‘science-fiction-like’, however, there is increasing research being carried out into drugs that may have the potential to eradicate memories in just such a manner. In addition, many people report painful and traumatic memories which are so debilitating that they limit their ability to function in the world. This makes the issues raised in Eternal Sunshine, and their philosophical treatment, all the more topical and important. Moral considerations regarding memory removal also lead to important questions concerning personal identity and what it means to be human. It may be, for example, that removing chunks of our experience makes us different people – but don’t many of us want to be different people? Isn’t that the point? Besides, each experience we gain makes us a different person, but it seems absurd to suggest that we should be prohibited from making memories as well as from erasing them. In the end, perhaps the biggest question is what should really matter more – happiness or truth?