The Ethics of Memory Modification: Personal Narratives, Relational Selves and Autonomy

Neuroethics 16 (1) (2022)
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For nearly two decades, ethicists have expressed concerns that the further development and use of memory modification technologies (MMTs)—techniques allowing to intentionally and selectively alter memories—may threaten the very foundations of who we are, our personal identity, and thus pose a threat to our well-being, or even undermine our “humaneness.” This paper examines the potential ramifications of memory-modifying interventions such as changing the valence of targeted memories and selective deactivation of a particular memory as these interventions appear to be at the same time potentially both most promising clinically as well as menacing to identity. However, unlike previous works discussing the potential consequences of MMTs, this article analyzes them in the context of the narrative relational approach to personal identity and potential issues related to autonomy. I argue that such a perspective brings to light the ethical aspects and moral issues arising from the use of MMTs that have been hidden from previously adopted approaches. In particular, this perspective demonstrates how important the social context in which an individual lives is for the ethical evaluation of a given memory-modifying intervention. I conclude by suggesting that undertaking memory modifications without taking into account the social dimension of a person’s life creates the risk that she will not be able to meet one of the basic human needs—the autonomous construction and maintenance of personal identity. Based on this conclusion, I offer some reflections on the permissibility and advisability of MMTs and what these considerations suggest for the future.

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Przemysław Zawadzki
Jagiellonian University


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