Seminar: Alexandre Erler, "Is memory modification compatible with an authentic life?"

Past Event

02 December 2009, 4:00pm - 6:00pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

Abstract: Some people worry that enhancement technologies might lead us to live inauthentic lives. Memory modification technologies (MMTs) raise this worry in a particularly acute manner. The members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, for instance, in "Beyond Therapy", have suggested that MMTs might threaten our “identity”, which seems plausibly understood as a concern about authenticity. I shall discuss whether such a concern is justified, and if so, to what extent. After some clarifications about the notion of authenticity (and its contrary), I will distinguish between memory enhancement and memory editing – following in this an article on the topic by Matthew Liao and Anders Sandberg. I shall argue that both procedures can work either way as far as authenticity is concerned, justifying a positive answer to the title question. I shall criticize some of the arguments presented in "Beyond Therapy", while acknowledging that its authors are on to something on one particular point – also touched upon by Matthew and Anders under the heading “The Issue of Appropriate Moral Reaction”. I will try to show that the cases they have in mind also raise concerns about authenticity. My conclusion will be that while many possible uses of MMTs seem desirable and compatible with an authentic life, the intrinsic value of authentic attitudes nevertheless gives us moral reasons to refrain from using memory editing in certain ways – namely ways that would disconnect us from the reasons we have to respond in a certain manner to our past experiences (thus preventing a disposition of great significance for our identity from expressing itself).

Alexandre Erler is a DPhil Student in Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford, and is affiliated to the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. His doctoral thesis focuses on authenticity - particularly when understood as a virtue - and on its implications for our projects of self-transformation and self-creation, notably those involving the use of enhancement technologies.