Does Memory Modification Threaten Our Authenticity?
Received: 11 February 2010 /Accepted: 4 August 2010 /Published online: 1 September 2010
# The Author(s) 2010. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
Abstract One objection to enhancement technologies
is that they might lead us to live inauthentic lives.
Memory modification technologies (MMTs) raise this
worry in a particularly acute manner. In this paper I
describe four scenarios where the use of MMTs might
be said to lead to an inauthentic life. I then undertake
to justify that judgment. I review the main existing
accounts of authenticity, and present my own version
of what I call a “true self” account (intended as a
complement, rather than a substitute, to existing
accounts). I briefly describe current and prospective
MMTs, distinguishing between memory enhancement
and memory editing. Moving then to an assessment of
the initial scenarios in the light of the accounts
previously described, I argue that memory enhance-
ment does not, by its very nature, raise serious
concerns about authenticity. The main threat to
authenticity posed by MMTs comes, I suggest, from
memory editing. Rejecting as inadequate the worries
about identity raised by the President’s Council on
Bioethics in Beyond Therapy, I argue instead that
memory editing can cause us to live an inauthentic life
in two main ways: first, by threatening its truthfulness,
and secondly, by interfering with our disposition to
respond in certain ways to some past events, when we
have reasons to respond in such ways. This consider-
ation allows us to justify the charge of inauthenticity in
cases where existing accounts fail. It also gives us a
significant moral reason not to use MMTs in ways that
would lead to such an outcome.
One objection to the use of human enhancement
technologies is that it might threaten our authenticity.1
Memory modification technologies (MMTs for short)
raise this worry in a particularly acute manner. In their
much discussed report Beyond Therapy, the members
of the President’s Council on Bioethics thus write that
[a]mong the larger falsehoods to which such
practices [as memory modification] could lead
us, few are more problematic than the extreme
beliefs regarding the possibility—and impossibil-
ity—of human control. Erring on the one side, we
might come to imagine ourselves as having more
control over our memories and identities than we
really do, believing that we can be authors and
Neuroethics (2011) 4:235–249
1See e.g. Elliott ; The President’s Council on Bioethics,
, chap.5; Parens , pp.39–40.
A. Erler (*)
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics,
University of Oxford,
Suite 8, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street,
Oxford OX1 1PT, UK
editors of our memories while still remaining truly
—and true to—ourselves [35, p. 230].
The authors are concerned that MMTs might
induce in us a mistaken belief about the degree of
control we have over our identities, i.e. the belief that
we can take control of our memories while still
preserving our identity. Let me note the particular way
they phrase their concern: the suggestion is that
“being the authors and editors of our memories” is
incompatible with remaining true to ourselves. Given
that authenticity is often identified with the idea of
being “true to oneself”, the concern in this passage
seems to be that controlling our memories thanks to
MMTs will make us inauthentic.
What sort of cases might give rise to such a
concern? Consider the following four scenarios:
1. The Lady Macbeth case. It is presented by the
authors of Beyond Therapy themselves, in another
passage where they suggest that MMTs might
pose a threat to our “identity”:
But if enfeebled memory can cripple identity,
selectively altered memory can distort it. Changing
the content of our memories or altering their
emotional tonalities, however desirable to alleviate
guilty or painful consciousness, could subtly
reshape who we are, at least to ourselves. With
altered memories we might feel better about
ourselves, but it is not clear that the better-feeling
“we” remains the same as before. Lady Macbeth,
cured of her guilty torment, would remain the
murderess she was, but not the conscience-stricken
being even she could not help but be [35, p. 212].
In this scenario, Lady Macbeth uses MMTs to escape
the feelings of guilt she experiences after having
spurred her husband to murder king Duncan. As the
passage suggests, this could take two forms: she could
remove the memory completely, or attenuate its
emotional impact. Call the first alternative the
amnesiac, and the latter the carefree Lady Macbeth.
I shall consider both variants in a subsequent section.
2. Elisabeth’s case. During her high school years,
Elisabeth was the black sheep of her class: the
other girls did not want her in their clique. Until
she moved to university her everyday experience
was mostly one of social exclusion and even
bullying. Fortunately, Liz’s life has taken a much
better turn since then: she now has a successful
career, a wonderful family of her own, and is
generally quite a happy person. Yet she resents
the way her classmates have treated her (even
though these feelings are not obsessive and do not
impair her functioning), and does not wish to
have anything to do with them in the absence of
an apology on their part. Since none of them has
ever volunteered such an apology, even when she
hinted at the topic in her (negative) reply to their
invitation at a class reunion, Liz now keeps her
distance—for example, she never attends such
reunions. A friend of Liz, Sonya, has endured
similar mistreatments during high school. Yet
thanks to her different native temperament, bad
things tend to just “roll off her back”, and she
bears no grudge to those who mistreated her. She
goes to most class reunions, and is now on good
terms with her former classmates, as if nothing
bad had ever happened to her. On hearing Sonya
and other friends speak of their high school years
in much more positive terms than she can herself,
Liz feels envious. She wishes she did not feel so
strongly about these past offences. When she
learns about the existence of MMTs, Liz decides
to blunt the emotional impact of her memories of
rejection and bullying. As a result, her past
misfortunes no longer seem to her so bad as to
warrant resentment towards her former class-
mates, and she finds herself willing to forgive
them without expecting an apology anymore. She
gets in touch with some of them on a social
networking site, and for the first time is able to
positively interact with them. The good moments
she had as a teenager are no longer overshadowed
by her memories of victimization, and Liz
definitely feels that her use of MMTs has allowed
her to enhance her overall well-being.
3. Carl’s case. For years, Carl has been subjected to
serious physical and sexual abuse. As a result, he
has become consumed by hatred towards man-
kind and has embraced a life of crime. After
shooting a policeman during an armed robbery,
Carl is arrested and sentenced to 30 years in
prison. The psychiatrists who examine him
conclude that even though he is not, strictly
speaking, mentally ill, he would be less of a
danger to society on his release if he were given
236 A. Erler
traditional option, but they now have an alternative:
erasing and replacing the traumatic memories that
had fuelled his feelings of hatred, as well as the
memories of his worst crimes,whichhadturnedhim
into a hardened criminal. The doctors can expect
in a quicker and less costly manner. They thus offer
Carl the option to “edit” his memories in exchange
for parole. He accepts the deal.
4. Solomon’s case. Solomon is always on the lookout
for ways of becoming more effective at his job as a
journalist. He started using memory enhancing
drugs as soon as they became available, and is very
pleased with the accuracy of his enhanced memory
capacity. Yet now he also finds that he has become
unable to forget any personal failure, no matter how
minor, that he gets to experience: the memories of
them keep coming back to his mind, each time as
vivid as before. Once a well-adjusted person with a
high self-esteem, he is now struggling with feelings
Although he continues using the enhancers because
of the benefits he derives from them, Solomon is
very annoyed by their effect on his own self-image.
My impression is that the agents in all of these
scenarios end up living inauthentic lives after manip-
ulating their memory. Lady Macbeth, Elisabeth, and
Carl are also making inauthentic choices, even though
these choices lead to a gain in well-being.
In what follows I will undertake to justify those
verdicts. I shall begin by distinguishing three main
ways of understanding authenticity, and will offer my
own account, which relies on the idea that authenticity
consists in somehow being faithful to your true self
objections). After a brief review of existing and
prospective MMTs, where I will distinguish between
memory enhancement and memory editing, I shall
consider the respective implications of the aforesaid
accounts of authenticity for the four scenarios just
described. I shall argue that they concur in declaring
Solomon’s life inauthentic to some degree after he
starts enhancing his memory, but will add that his case
only involves contingent side effects and that memory
enhancement does not, by its very nature, seem to
warrant concerns about authenticity. The main threat to
our authenticity, I will suggest, comes from memory
editing, as illustrated by scenarios 1 to 3 above.
Rejecting as inadequate the worries about identity
raised by the President’s Council on Bioethics, I will
argue instead that memory editing can cause us to live
an inauthentic life in two main ways. First, it can
undermine the truthfulness of our lives. Secondly, even
when it does not do so, it can still mean deliberately
interfering with a disposition we possess to respond in
certain ways to some past events, when we have
reasons to respond in such ways. This consideration is
left out by rival accounts of authenticity (even though
these accounts do have sound points to make), which
are therefore unable to support the charge of inauthen-
ticity at least in the case of Liz. Yet I think it gives us a
significant moral reason not to use MMTs in ways that
would lead to such an outcome.
What is Authenticity?
Three Different Accounts
First, we need to get clear about what we mean exactly
term “authenticity” doesn’t have one single, universally
accepted meaning, even among philosophers. Three
main ways of understanding the notion can be found in
of authenticity as wholeheartedness; secondly, existen-
tialist accounts of authenticity; and finally, what I shall
call “true self” accounts.
The view of authenticity as wholeheartedness is
sometimes attributed to Harry Frankfurt,2even though
as far I am aware he doesn’t use the term “authentic-
ity” himself (and clearly doesn’t consider its implica-
tions for the use of enhancement technologies). On
this view, authenticity consists in a second-order
identification with one’s first-order desires, an identi-
fication that is “wholehearted” in the sense that it
doesn’t involve any ambivalence at the second-order
level (Frankfurt ;  pp. 91ff). On this account,
the authentic agent is one who acts upon desires and
preferences with which she wholeheartedly identifies.
Choices and actions involving such wholehearted
2See e.g. Litton , p.66; Christman ; Cottingham , p.10.
Does Memory Modification Threaten Our Authenticity?237
authentic choice to make. Claiming that survivors of
traumatic events have such a duty would seem
excessively harsh. But it remains that in every such
case we will still have a moral reason, grounded in
the value of authenticity, not to edit our memory.
Whether acting on that reason is obligatory or not will
depend on the strength of the competing reasons,
grounded for instance in the agent’s self-interest,
speaking against the authentic course of action.
Finally, considerations of authenticity clearly do not
justify a ban on memory editing procedures (and even
less so on memory enhancers). They do, however,
suggest the inadequacy of a completely liberal policy
endorsing the use of such procedures for any purpose
except when they can be expected to cause positive
harm to someone. The considerations I have adduced
might provide grounds for doctors to refuse to meet,
or at least try to discourage requests for memory
editing for “cosmetic” purposes, such as Liz’s.
Savulescu, an anonymous Neuroethics reviewer, and audiences
at the SOPHA 2009 Congress in Geneva, the Centre for Social
Ethics and Policy at the University of Manchester, and at the
James Martin 21st-Century School Advanced Research Semi-
nar, at the University of Oxford, for their comments on
previous versions of this paper.
I would like to thank Roger Crisp, Julian
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