Instigator / Pro

If erasing memory about a person was possible, on balance, it would cause more harm than good


The debate is finished. The distribution of the voting points and the winner are presented below.

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After 1 vote and with 5 points ahead, the winner is...

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Contender / Con

Assume that erasing memories causes no brain damage.

Read the title carefully, it is erasing memories about a specific person, not object, not place, etc.

Round 1
what precisely gives human the right to erase memories of other people? I can already sense con thinking about curing PTSD, solving problems that eat away at the brain. But PTSD is formed from emotion, from trauma caused from specific events. To erase memory of a person, of the cause, it's uncertain if this will completely resolve the issues the person has. Combat, abuse, violence, being threatened, these are all possible ideas that would make a person unable to function in life. But the problem is not merely the person causing these, it is the action itself. A slippery slope is then created, if we erase everything also caused by the person, how far do we go? Do we also erase the effects of those actions? What about the other people effected by the actions? It gets too vague; as Eternal Sunshine would display, even the main character trying to think of something completely unrelated to hide the person away, his unrelated memory was deleted. The chain reaction could cause massive empty spaces, and do far more damage than good. An empty shell -- isn't that basically the description of someone suffering under PTSD?

Consider the fact that nobody is truly dead unless they are forgotten. The ability to kill someone is already heavily frowned upon in the modern world; it is a sin in the bible and a law that is enforced with utmost penalty. But the ability to *truly* kill someone, even merely for the one person, is dangerous to consider. If everyone worked together, they could end up "truly" killing someone, erasing all data, evidence, AND memory that someone even existed. Don't even mention the fact that black market deals and dangerous men could potentially have access to this technology, propaganda could convince entire groups of people that a person never happened. Entire communities would be brainwashed beyond cure. And I'm not certain anyone would be able to stop them.

To remember the negative is important as you learn lessons from your failures, from the bitter and the sweet relations you have with other people. The world is rarely black and white with pure villains, and there is almost always something good to be remembered. It's like the idea, remember those who harmed you, so that you may take revenge and do better. Do you not agree, that most of the time, people want to forget about those who they loved instead, as the heartbreak and the misery seemed to bring them to depression? But once they move on, they are a better person, they can proceed to better relations. They may not physically be with you, but they are in your heart, the good times, the bad times, it's all part of life. If you only decide to forget what is bad, then you would likely be naïve, always thinking the world is a safe and good place, hardly learning any lessons, hardly being able to adapt to the corrupt and selfish world around us. Just what gives us the right to manipulate memories, especially erasing those of a person? Memories are what make you, you. To lose sight of your past-- your origin, the very means which you strive to live-- could mean losing sight of your future-- your goals, your desires.

I rest my case.

1. Burdens

Pro and I are comparing two worlds. Con’s world includes a new technology akin to the one developed by Lacuna, Inc. in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (ES from here on). This tech can find, target and remove memories associated with a specific person without causing brain damage. Pro’s world is the non-ES world, i.e. our world. There is no trade-off here, no separate technology that would exist if not for the ES tech, so he is defending the status quo. I must show that the benefits of having this technology outweigh the harms of having it. Impacts will be weighed based not just on the number of people they affect, but on the degree to which they are affected.

2. Non-ES Options

Pro is reliant on a restrictive set of options for treating those with psychological problems (e.g. trauma and depression). People either live with these issues, seek out professional help (medications and therapy) or self-medicate. While therapy can be effective, there are a lot of patients who are refractive to such therapy (as many as 50% of those that go through therapy), particularly among those with  PTSD.[1-3] Even when it does work, therapy is a long and grueling process that can last years during which time they will continue to suffer.[4] Meanwhile, prescription medications usually focus on selective serotonin inhibitors, which can have non-response rates as high as 40%. Even with the full suite of treatment in a primary care setting, there is a 30% likelihood of recurrence, relegating many of those with PTSD to continue their suffering interminably.[3]

As a result, many suffering from PTSD (almost 50%) engage in substance abuse.[5] In particular, alcohol dependence often results from a desire to drink in order to avoid or dull a negative experience in one’s life. Those experiences often result from interactions with others. These range from actual traumas and cases of abuse to separating partners. “Coping motives appear to be a risk factor for alcohol dependence even when severity of depression and frequency of negative alcohol consequences are statistically controlled.”[6] Applying this to my argument, trauma is a risk factor for increased alcohol dependency, meaning those with trauma are more likely to cause continuous and substantial physical and psychological damage to themselves and others in both the short and long term.[7] Others drugs, many of which are illegal and dangerous, cause their own unique harms in an attempt to escape their pasts.[8]

These strategies fail so thoroughly and so often that we should be actively searching for promising replacements. But ES technology is not just promising – it’s established to be safe, accurate, and 100% effective. The difference could not be more staggering.

3. The Scope of the Problem

“On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.”[9] “4 in 10 women and 4 in 10 men have experienced at least one form of coercive control by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”[10] Whether it’s physical or psychological, each of these results in trauma, with individuals exhibiting depression, suicidal behavior, addiction to drugs, neurological disorders, and PTSD.

These people stay in these abusive relationships for many reasons including: fear, belief that the abuse they’re receiving is normal, embarrassment or shame, and feelings of love for the person.[11] In Pro’s world, they are required to work through these problems while enduring continued abuse. In Con’s world, these can be resolved simultaneously by erasing memories of their abuser, allowing the abused to escape further abuse more quickly.

But the Con world solves more broadly. Imagine removing the repeat flashbacks and sources of lasting depression and anxiety for rape victims, who often cannot move on from the psychological trauma of their encounters well after they physically heal.[12] This could also address abuse from relatives or friends, which notoriously leave lasting and deep scars.[13] Even expectant mothers who have experienced miscarriages and stillbirths, which can result in lasting psychological wounds, could get relief.[14]

Moving on from obvious traumas, let’s talk about a much more common experience: breakups. Studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that just thinking of their former significant other elicits a response similar to pain. This also “lights up the same parts of your brain as cocaine users who are waiting for their next line. In other words, love is addictive, and breaking up with someone is like going through withdrawal.” This pain and addiction cycle is fueled by each thought about the former significant other.[15] For some, dealing with rejection leads them to question their own basic worth, falling into a self-deprecation trap from which it can take years and even decades to recover.[16] Pro’s world lacks meaningful recourse, condemning them to persistent psychological suffering, whereas the ES tech affords them an effective, efficient and safe means to move on.


A. Right to Forget

Pro argues that individuals should not be allowed to forget others because those memories belong to those who feature in them. There is no legal body on this planet that would say other people bear any ownership over your memories, much less that individuals have some inherent right to be remembered. Forgetting someone, whether by simply failing to recall them or out of induced amnesia, is not nor should it be a criminal act. Your memories are yours to modify, plain and simple. The right to forget someone isn’t affected the means by which it is accomplished, nor will the capacity to treat someone as forgotten functionally change. Religious communities ostracize members, functionally forgetting them, as with off the derech (OTD) Jews and ostracized Mormons.[17, 18] Giving those people the means to erase a person from their memories can only generate the same outcome.

B. The Price of Failures

Pro also argues that it’s important to learn from our failures. I agree. However, Pro’s argument is inherently flawed: people abusing drugs are not learning from their failures. They are caught in a vicious cycle harming themselves and those around them. If Pro could guarantee that every individual who encounters these problems will come out the other side stronger, then he might have a point, but contrary to his point, many do not move on from their traumas. Many do not move on from depression. You can and will still learn lessons – removing some people from your life doesn’t remove you from life and its school of hard knocks – but we should give people better options than the ones they currently turn to when they are in pain.

C. Efficacy

I am not claiming 100% efficacy against all instances of trauma, but a lack of success in some instances does not invalidate other, plausible successes. More importantly, even if this alone doesn’t resolve instances of psychological trauma, it can be used as part of a treatment program that is far more effective than solely using conventional therapy or drugs.

D. The Slippery Slope

Pro’s slippery slope scenario is faulty. Even within the ES narrative, Joel’s attempts to move to unrelated memories did not result in their deletion; Clementine was just removed from places where she should not have been, and Joel was relocated back to relevant memories. That was also a case where the patient was actively working against the ES tech. The head of the company, who had been doing this for years, had never seen it before. No other patient went to unrelated memories during the procedure.  The notion that memory aberrant memory removal would become common and result in huge gaps in the memories of these patients does not hold up.

E. Black Market

The formation of a black market only applies if access to this technology is somehow limited. Neither I nor my opponent as ascribed such limitations. Moreover, these machines are likely expensive and the expertise to use them is clearly complex. This would be akin to arguing that there would be a black market for MRI machines. Pro will have to provide evidence that black markets have been built around similar technology previously, and I do not see any evidence of that. Finally, there are black markets already for the prescription medications that many of these people are already abusing.[19] Access to this technology will drive people away from those dangerous black markets and towards validated, safe technology.


Round 2
You are sad, you take drugs, but what is exactly the problem, you or the drugs? It's not entirely clear; perhaps we could do something about the drugs? Is memory erasure just another potentially addicting activity that you keep going back to, for every problem you face? And if we extend this machine to government control... Is it another reason why wars can begin, with fresh soldiers sent off like robots, then having their memories wiped, so that PTSD doesn't affect their performance? The moral becomes very vague if we go down this right, especially with real world interference of the government. 

Abuse, indeed, a serious problem. But couldn't the reverse be considered a horrible future? Now, the criminal can get away with abusing a "fresh woman" who falls for his trap every single time, by obtaining this technology. What more, they can now abandon any child, claiming to have forgotten about it in a memory wipe. The ability to also deny responsibility is a insane implication that con would have trouble tackling. He says that people should be able to manipulate their memories, but doesn't give any case for when other people begin to interfere. 

Now, about drugs. Con seems to think that as soon as the trauma is over, the person is forgot about, the man will become clean. But he still has the addiction to the drugs. He still has the other experience attached to it. Sure, con might say, erase the memories of the drug as well. How will you explain to the man that he wasted his last few years away, and this new technology only came out now? He will most certainly blame the company and file some lawsuit. People are eager to find something to blame. Yes, it wasn't the company's fault, but his life filled with empty holes and the last thing he remember being a memory from years ago does not fare well. He still can't participate in society, with lack of knowledge, and preparing the future doesn't negate the meaningless or tragic past. If this was about time travel, certainly, we could fix it. But we are only changing the person's perception. 

Keep in mind that this produces another problem, with criminal activity. If someone verbally abused another to the point where they were depressed, but then helped them erase memories, are they at fault? Some morals argue that actions matter, others say results are what matter. But this character is utmost detestable, and I'm sure nobody would want to keep getting bullied and then having memory erased. Now you see the problem. Negligent systems and governments might solve every problem with "wipe their memory", resulting in a blurry society with corruption rampant and everyone none the wiser. The memory wipe machine only works in an utopia system of government, not the real world.

If Joel could have problems, why couldn't others? Emotions affect thought process within the mind erasure process. Being reminded of past trauma could put the person in a hopeless mind state, struggling to find a safe place to hide, only for the man to pop up once more, also erasing the "safe place" idea. It's definitely a possibility, especially with people's attachment to problems.

To compare this incredible machine to a simple MRI scanner is laughable. Can MRI machine allow you to get away with any crime, scot free? Can it convert someone into your robotic follower? The more powerful and dangerous something can be used, the more likely that people will use it. Consider terrorists working together to steal one of these machines. You would have to employ countless security measures and guards even to have a chance. With the serious use of resources, it's hard to say for sure if the finance is worth the risk and the negatives here.

Human's reasoning is not perfect, con has proved this precise point. So how can they judge correctly whether to erase or not? And what if they could trick others into accepting, especially their children or naïve ones who have fallen for them? Consider, that making someone into a slave is arguably far worse than killing them, as it could lead to an entire life of servitude. Con thinks he has solved the entire problem, but it is not that simple. Being able to solve PTSD at a scan of a machine is not necessarily always a good thing.  
I’ll go back through the flow I had and mark the spots where Pro responded. First, though, a couple of overviews.
OV1:This… doesn’t look like a debate round. Pro is asking a lot of questions, and while I will give responses, none of these function as individual arguments. Pro also doesn’t address any of my sources, nor does he provide any of his own, turning most of his arguments into a mix of thought exercises and fishing expeditions. In the process, he also manages to leave a lot of my arguments untouched, conceding wholesale the harms, link stories and impacts of almost every point. Solving for a great deal of PTSD cases and the resulting suicides, providing abuse victims a means of escape, and creating opportunities for those dealing with breakups to rebound and rebuild themselves are huge impacts, and they all remain untouched.
OV2:About half of Pro’s arguments are only abstractions aimed at pushing unlikely narratives about the technology can be used. Pro seems adamant about focusing on both smaller and grander abuses of the technology, though each time he mentions this, he seems to get further and further from the direct functions of the technology. This technology removes memories of a person. That’s all. You can’t make someone your slave that way. You can’t turn them into a robot. If you wanted to do those things, we have lobotomies, and they’re a whole lot less expensive and lower tech. This is a wonderful piece of technology and the uses may contain some serious potential pitfalls, though every one of Pro’s scenarios is a half-baked “what if” without any examination of how plausible it is. I urge voters not to give any weight to points that are so wildly unlikely.
1. Burdens
Note off the bat the Pro dropped the burdens analysis. Buy my framing of the debate, and note that Pro has spent absolutely no time in this or the previous round arguing that available methods of dealing with psychological trauma and depression are effective. This amounts to a concession of my solvency and his lack of solvency for these issues.
2. Non-ES Options
Pro drops the vast majority of this argument and thus concedes that the current system is incapable of managing many instances of trauma and depression, and is particularly bad for those with PTSD, for whom therapy and medications often fail). Finally, Pro concedes that my world contains a safe, accurate and 100%  effective method for memory erasure that could replace many of these insufficient or actively damaging solutions.
Pro only addresses the substance abuse point, so let’s go there. He argues that people who were on drugs would still be addicted to them. He’s partly right, though there are two problems with this. One, instead of turning to drugs in the first place, many would simply turn to this tech, which means they wouldn’t become addicted in the first place. This is an alternative (one that is much more effective and targeted) to those addictions. Two, if you remove the reason that someone is drinking (in many cases, to forget someone), then you remove the impetus for drinking. Some people might stay addicted. Others won’t. Just because it’s not 100% solvency doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. As for someone suing the company for coming out with the product too late… that’s absurd. They would lose the lawsuit. The company can’t be blamed for what happened in the absence of its product. I’m also not clear what he could sue them for if he got the treatment and didn’t do well afterward. These sound pretty weak to me.
Pro’s questions don’t address these points, but I’ll respond individually. The reality is that these people are abusing drugs, so the chicken vs. egg question does not matter. If Pro has ideas about what to do to solve the drug problem, he’s now too late to offer it as an alternative. Even if memory erasure is potentially addicting, it’s still better than rampant substance abuse. As for the government somehow fixing soldiers with PTSD, Pro himself argued in R1 that combat trauma is often the result of violent acts that aren’t caused by a specific person. This technology can only be used to erase the memories of a person, ergo this is not a possible use for it.
3. The Scope of the Problem
Another argument dropped almost wholesale. Extend every point about how terrible and common physical and psychological abuse is and how the ES tech solves for a great deal of psychological trauma resulting from domestic abuse, rape, childhood abuse, miscarriages and stillbirths. Finally, extend that this tech has direct links to getting people out of self-deprication traps and escaping the pain and addiction cycles, for which Pro has no meaningful recourse.
Pro’s responses are just confusing. I made clear later in my argument that the technology requires someone with the knowledge and skill to use it and is highly complex, not to mention it’s likely incredibly expensive. It’s an even stranger argument when you realize just how much goes into the procedure. Joel had remove everything from his apartment that reminded him of Clementine, bring it into the facility, and have it mapped to the parts of his brain. That’s an incredibly time-intensive process, requires actual buy-in from a person to gather everything up and go through the process of brain mapping, and requires an EEG and extensive neuroscience experience, things that not many people are going to have handy. This is also responsive to Pro’s points about the government abusing this – individuals have to have buy in in order to remove a person from their lives, so it cannot be forced on them.
As for the uses, I’m having a hard time with them. This criminal’s efforts wouldn’t work anyway because an abuser is still causing physical pain to his victim and he can’t erase everyone’s experiences of seeing her go through that, the physical evidence of his abuse, or any other evidence (e.g. DNA, fingerprints) that could connect him to criminal acts. The efforts to abandon a child or deny responsibility are just weird because you are still accountable for things you did that you forgot later. You still did them. Conveniently forgetting you were there is an excuse criminals use now, but they’re still arrested, tried and convicted despite claiming innocence.
A. Right to Forget
Extend my points about how groups functionally forget people by ostracizing them now, and how a person’s memories belong to them, not to others. Pro drops these points.
Pro does argue that other people might push abuse victims into getting their minds wiped after doing harm to them, but this actually seems better than the status quo. It’s only because their minds are wiped that these people can escape those abusive situations. The alternative is that these individuals stay in a verbally abusive relationship and remain too afraid to turn in their spouse. Everyone loses. As for the notion that others may trick people into erasing individuals from their minds… I’m a little lost. So, what would they stand to gain by doing this? You don’t turn them into a slave because you’re just erasing their memory of one person. Again, it’s a lot of work and likely very expensive to go through this procedure. Why not just keep the impressionable youth in the basement and tell them that’s their world? You don’t require this machine to treat someone like a slave.
B. The Price of Failures
Pro leaves this untouched. Extend that giving people options to move beyond their traumas also allows them to better address their failures, revitalizing lives that are left without hope in his world.
C. Efficacy
Another dropped point. Extend that any efficacy is better than the failures of the current system, and extend that this can be used as part of a treatment program to solve for many of the others.
D. Slippery Slope
Pro drops almost everything here. Again, this business had been open for years. The head of the company had never seen anyone like Joel, so this was extremely rare. Even if there were others like him, though, this did not result in the removal of unrelated memories, just a more involved procedure. The slippery slope still makes no sense because even this example didn’t result in huge memory gaps, and it’s Pro’s only example.
E. Black Market
Pro really doesn’t get this argument, so I’ll rephrase it. The problem is that a machine like this would be expensive and require expertise and training to use. You’re right, this is an incredible machine, but that’s precisely why a black market wouldn’t occur: it takes too much time and resources to make this a reality. I’ve already pointed out that this doesn’t let anyone “get away with any crime, scot free” for several reasons (see: The Scope of the Problem). Removing memories of a person cannot “convert someone into your robotic follower” (which, by the by, doesn’t make sense anyway – you’re removing memories of a person, not changing the personality of the person getting those memories removed). Even if these were true, though, being more powerful and dangerous doesn’t obviate the massive cost and expertise barriers required for black market groups to pull this off. If someone stole the machine, they would still need an expert neurologist to run it, and would still require individuals who get it to individually gather everything reminding them of a given person, bring it in, have it mapped to their brains, and then individually go in and zap each of those sites. And what do they get for that? A person without memories of another person. A lot of time and energy spent for something relatively meaningless.

Back to Pro.
Round 3
Let’s face it, it all comes down to the treatment of PTSD versus the likelihood of government misuse. But we’ve seen this everywhere throughout history. Hitler taking power and wanting to kill Jews. Japan going against US in World War Two. North Korea is threatening to use its nukes despite their destructive power. Countries leaders are difficult to trust and with potential of memory wiping of citizens by dictators it’s hard to say for sure whether the positives outwit the negatives. In the end, con can only win if only the most trusted and clean countries had access to this machine, but even then it only gives terrorists and dangerous countries reasons to go to war. To stop PTSD only to create more PTSD, I’m not seeing any clear resolution for the memory wiping machine. Vote for pro.
Voters, this debate is absurdly easy to decide. Here are the worlds the two of us have given you:
The Con world, which includes the ES device, addresses a great deal of psychological trauma and sources of depression that goes unsolved in Pro’s world. Remember, this technology is a form of treatment that does not exist in Pro’s world and has no functional equivalent. At no point in this debate has Pro endeavored to defend any of the methods used to address the trauma common to victims of domestic abuse, childhood abuse, rape, miscarriages, or stillbirths. The experience of a breakup, which many of us will experience in our lifetimes and which can send us into spirals of self-deprecation and leave us spinning through cycles of pain and addiction, is similarly unsolvable for many in Pro’s world. Only with this technology is there a chance for these people to break away from their traumas. Only in my world can those with terrible traumas escape PTSD, which comes with that terrible risk of suicide. Only in my world do these people have an alternative to drug dependencies that harm them and those around them.
Pro’s world has no benefits. The only argument he still cares about at this point in the debate is the possibility of government misuse, which is still utterly baffling to me. Pro straight drops every point I’ve made against this, so allow me to summarize those points.
  • Government misuse requires hefty investments on the parts of those governments, including expensive machines, substantial technical expertise, and huge time commitments to each individual.
  • The government would have to round up individuals, force them to take everything that reminds them of a given person from their property, set it in a room with a neurologist who will force them to look at them individually, map them all to their brains, and then spend an overnight session with each one to remove that single individual.
  • The government stands to gain almost nothing by doing this. Taking away their knowledge of a given person doesn’t turn them into a slave or a robot, as Pro has claimed in previous rounds. It just reduces their volume of knowledge slightly. Pro has yet to provide any convincing story regarding how this would be used within the bounds of the device we’ve been discussing.
  • Even if you believe that this device could be used to erase other specific memories, the whole point is meaningless. You want a slave or a robot instead of a person? Lobotomize them. It’s much less expensive, much less time intensive, requires little technical expertise, and is far more permanently effective.
  • If anything, all of the examples Pro keeps providing only emphasize how absurd this point is because each of his examples of totalitarian governments clearly had much bigger aims. Hitler had no interest in wiping minds on course to killing millions in death camps. Japan was much more interested in physical conquest than mental conquest. North Korea has developed its own cult of personality without such a device and has focused on its own destructive power. The key uniting characteristic is this: they use hard power to control their people and others. What possible benefit could they stand to gain by utilizing substantial resources to erase very specific portions of the memories of their people? Pro never says.
  • As for terrorists stealing this technology, we should all prefer that they waste tremendous amounts of resources and time to get a hold of and use one of these devices, especially when many of these groups currently aim to acquire a nuclear weapon.[] So, even if you believe that countries or terrorists would try to use this technology for nefarious purposes, that’s just more reason to vote for my side in this debate because it will only slow them down.
As with any debate about a science fiction topic, debates like this can get abstract. Pro certainly tried to do just that, attempting to apply this device to all manner of dystopian futures. What he doesn’t recognize, and where his argument fails most completely, is that this is not an abstracted device. It has a very specific use-case with clear and established restrictions. Pro wants to throw out all of those restrictions in order to create the biggest impacts, but he’s refusing to tell the story of how those would work with this device in mind.
Meanwhile, my case is clear and uncontested. At best, Pro has provided reasons to believe that the ES tech will not be a panacea. That’s fine because nothing is. My world has clear and established solvency for a great deal of real-world problems. I have supported those claims with evidence and warrants, whereas Pro’s own claims remain fanciful, built only on notions of what could happen if this technology functioned in ways it clearly doesn't and if countries threw out their established interests.

Vote for the side that recognizes the ES tech for what it is and not some monstrous abstraction thereof, where it will be used for the good of tens of millions who suffer without recourse. Vote Con.