I was just watching Men in Black 3 yesterday and at the end of the movie there is a scene where a general dies and the his son walks to K and asks where his dad is. After being unable to tell the general's son the truth that his dad is dead, K flashes him (erases his memory) and gives him a new memory about his dad; "Your dad was a hero." The son, none the wiser about the entire event, blankly repeats back, "My dad was a hero."

Me being a person who lost a person close to me in the past, this whole scene struck me in a very weird way. On one hand it could be extremely helpful to avoid going through a huge grief process involving anger and depression, but on the other hand I think it's important that you remember people for their legacy. If I died and I had kids I wouldn't want them to have me erased from their minds, but if it was better for them that that happened, then I would have to agree that it was for the best.

If you wanted you could also raise the point that is like euthanasia in a way. A creature in unbearable pain that will cause serious damage if not death, so we silently and painlessly end the pain. However, that also raises the question of whether or not humans are just super evolved animals, which is not the focus of my question.

So, assuming that it was possible to erase portions of human memory (which could very well be possible in the future), would it be ethical to erase a person from someone's memory in the name of avoiding pain?

  • +1 for an interesting question. However euthanasia for animals does not normally force us to acknowledge that we're "merely animals" (even if we are), only that the relief of pain has a broadly respected value. I'd be more curious to see if anyone relates the morality of a memory wipe to preservation of personal identity.
    – Ryder
    Jan 6, 2013 at 20:44
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    Is there the option for the person to consent to having their memory wiped? If one requires consent for the action, then the question can be narrowed to "can a person's right to their memories be waived by consent?" I would look to medical ethics: there is a similar conflict between autonomy and beneficence in the case of euthanasia. Jan 7, 2013 at 15:58
  • @SAHornickel: There can be the option, yes. But as portrayed in the movie a little kid cannot be given that option for obvious reasons. The problem then becomes what to do about people who are unable to give that consent.
    – AdAstra
    Jan 7, 2013 at 19:53
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    @Redmastif, in the case of a minor, one finds someone with the agency to give consent. If there is no person, then there is no basis on which to violate a person's autonomy. If modifying memories falls under medical practice, without consent, it becomes the fiduciary duty of the practitioner to keep the patient intact and viable. Basically, without consent you can't modify memories without violating the patient trust unless it is to avert immediate death. Jan 8, 2013 at 10:59
  • I can't imagine any way to do this without having too much unchecked power.
    – Joshua
    May 11, 2018 at 18:32

5 Answers 5


As a consequentialist, I'm sure you can construct a scenario where removing a memory is the right thing to do. For example, if someone is going to go on a shooting spree because they caught their girlfriend with another man, removing the memory of the indiscretion is probably better at maximizing whatever value-function you have.

With other frameworks, it may or may not be permitted. I doubt it would be easy to will the universal law, "A person X should be able to remove the memory of person Y if X believes it would be better for Y to not have that memory", so it probably fails the Categorical Imperative. It also probably violates intuitive morality, as people seem to value self-determination pretty highly.

To get an idea of what a particular framework might think about it, I suggest you look at their arguments about lying (including white lies). Similar reasoning would seem to apply in this case: in each case your actions replaces an accurate perception in someone else with an inaccurate one. There are difficult issues regarding lying in dire situations; suggesting that this is like lying is not to say that there is an obvious answer to the morality of memory alteration.

  • But even as a consequentialist you could still argue exactly the other way around. 1. it is of great interest to anyone (I guess) to lead a meaningful and self-conscious life i.e. not to be manipulated and to lose maybe essential memories and 2. we would all constantly fear being manipulated once it get's known.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 7, 2013 at 0:55
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    @iphigenie - Only a very strictly rule-based consequentialist would do that; the point is that you're allowed to make exceptions to general rules when it seems that it is more valuable to make an exception than follow the rule.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 7, 2013 at 13:36
  • I just wanted to point out that there isn't just one consequentialist viewpoint. There are rule utilitarians, act utilitarians and preference utilitarians, and two of these would disagree, I think.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 7, 2013 at 14:29
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    @iphigenie - Conventional rule utilitiarians would disagree. Preference utilitarians are not necessarily rule utilitarians, so when averaging over everyone's preferences, there are still plenty of cases where memory-wipes would be the moral thing to do. (More flexible rule utilitarians would allow it also by virtue of being able to come up with a sufficiently detailed rule.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 7, 2013 at 19:18

In contrast to the mere consequential answer, I would argue for a more liberal, preference utilitarian, Golden-Rulish approach:

If and only if the person in question gives their informed consent such an act is ethical.

Neither did the boy consent for his memory to be erased nor had he any insight of the impact of such a procedure. This would mean we would have ignored his preference, and that alone is reason enough not to do, never minding any proclaimed "greater good".

The question should not be "Should I do it?", but from this point of view one should reject the notion of having the power of allowing or denying it for someone else. It's not your call, yet you may recommend someone to change their memory or discourage someone from having their memory changed it, as long as you accept their final answer even if it disagrees with your preference.

What acts shall remain in this personal decision space of the individual's preference is of course open to debate. For this answer, I have assumed that one own's memory falls under this category.

  • It is unfortunate that most people are unable to give an informed consent to much of anything, much less a memory erasing procedure. However, as somebody who is very independent and also slightly anarchist (due to extreme ineptness of American government), I agree that the choice should be ultimately completely left to the person in question.
    – AdAstra
    Jun 26, 2013 at 0:33

There is no such thing as true knowledge, you can't be 100% sure. Therefore, everything you think to be true is based on belief. For example the belief in more or less basic assumptions like the physical world exists or the people who educated me are my parents.

By erasing someone's memory and writing a happy memory, you basically remove a bad assumption and add a happy assumption. As long as this assumption does not interfere with other assumptions (so it's logically possible), I do not think there is a problem.

Just make sure the new set of assumptions is better than the old one. But ah, when is that? But, in theory, I do not think there is a problem as long as the new set is better than the old set. One should always aim for the best in ethics, right?

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    One should always aim for the best in ethics. Yes. The problem is stated in your answer though; who decides what the "best" is?
    – AdAstra
    Jan 6, 2013 at 20:36
  • That's out of the scope of this question. There is no essential problem with wiping memory since it's just changing assumptions. What I'm saying is that it's ethical to change someone's memory when the new situation is better. This is not trivial! When you want to know which set of assumptions is better, that's another question.
    – user2953
    Jan 6, 2013 at 20:49
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    What happens though when people start to question what is real and what isn't? If you wipe/change only one person's memory, you have the problem of everyone else still retaining their original memories/assumptions. Eventually people's conflicting "memories" of a person will cause problems.
    – AdAstra
    Jan 6, 2013 at 21:36
  • Even accepting your premises I totally disagree with your conclusion. Even if all I think is true is merely an assumption, it's still mine. Couldn't you just as easily claim that erasing one wish and replacing it with another, "better" wish, would be fine? I don't think the point is that you switch "things" with the same status. The problem is that this wipes out our decisions and free will.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 7, 2013 at 0:49
  • @Redmastif but people continuously question that and of course there are always debates on that. The question is what you believe, since true knowledge doesn't exist. I think one's own memories are stronger than those of another, so one will believe your new memory. @iphigenie The problem is that this wipes out our decisions and free will - yes, and my answer is a reasoning with the conclusion that that is not a problem, because there is no such thing as true knowledge.
    – user2953
    Jan 7, 2013 at 7:39

People's memories are constantly affected by other peoples actions for better or worse. Taking it to science fictional extremes can also have both beneficial and harmful effects. It's reasonable to imagine precisely erasing certain memories can be beneficial to a person. Of course the potential for harm is obvious as well.

  • So the question then becomes one of whether or not we as a society are even capable of handling such power.
    – AdAstra
    Jan 6, 2013 at 20:38

It should be ethical provided the memory impedes on one's existence. It is common sense that when one is troubled by incubus,the nearest horde will be negatively affected. Thus erasing the bad memory would not only aid the individual but society at large,provided the subject is unable to cope.

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