The Selfishness of the Ethical Life
I personally don’t feel the memory erasure technique featured in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would help make my life meaningful. There’s a dilemma regarding immortality, developed by philosopher Bernard Williams, that I feel is relevant to this. Under this dilemma, in an immortal life you can either keep your memories and personality and become bored, or you can forget your memories and gain new personality traits, allowing you to find more things interesting. The issue with the second option is that at a certain point, without a connection to your past selves through memory, how can you consider this immortal person enjoying their life you? As the film shows when Clementine and Joel, after their procedures, listen to tapes of themselves before their procedures, erasing a significant amount of memory fundamentally changes who you are. If I undertook the memory erasure procedure, the person I am would disappear and a new person would appear. The person who I was before the procedure isn’t more or less happy, they don’t exist.
However, that’s not to say that someone’s life isn’t made more meaningful. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer believes that a meaningful life is one that is devoted to an objectively good cause and that suffering is intrinsically evil. With these assumptions, the most meaningful life is what he calls ‘the ethical life,’ one consciously devoted to removing suffering. If we follow his view, then memory erasure technician seems like it would be the single most meaningful jobs to have. A comedian might help someone hide from their suffering, a therapist might help someone learn to deal with their suffering, etc., but an erasure technician has actually removed the source of suffering!
The erasure technicians we see in the film, Stan, Patrick and their boss, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, don’t seem to have this sense of meaning. This doesn’t contradict Singer’s view because they aren’t consciously committed to the removal of suffering, erasing memories is just a job for them. If they saw erasing memories in order to reduce suffering as their purpose in life, they would have immensely meaningful lives according to Singer’s view. Then, if they erased more memories, reducing suffering more, than they would have even more meaningful lives. In fact, if they erased all of a person’s memories, and then kept them in some kind of stasis, then that person would never suffer and the lives of the erasure technicians would be even more meaningful. But why even erase the memories, then? Why shouldn’t they place everyone in stasis, so they never suffer again, removing all suffering from the world? Think about how meaningful that would be, if you removed all suffering? Of course, if everyone were in stasis, then they couldn’t independently reduce suffering and have meaningful lives, but that doesn’t make your life less meaningful.
Leaving this viewpoint, we seem to have come to the conclusion that all human consciousness should be destroyed from a perspective which contained the idea that a meaningful life is based on helping others. How did I reach this conclusion? The reason is that the basis for Peter Singer’s ethical life, the idea that suffering is intrinsically evil, is essentially the same as the idea that forms the basis for 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimism and antinatalism, that suffering/evil is positive, while pleasure/good is negative, merely the absence of suffering. If nothing is intrinsically good, but suffering is intrinsically evil, then it seems as if non-existence is better than existence.
Although Stan and Mary certainly aren’t thinking properly in this scene, and they have their own motivations to ensure Joel doesn’t wake up, I do think this scene shows just how the people at Lacuna think about their customers. Particularly at the start of the scene, we see how anything outside of what Joel’s supposed to do is reacted to with extreme panic. Joel going “off the map” is treated as if an important machine is broken, it seems as if Joel’s existence is reduced to this operation being completed to them. By thinking solely about how his suffering can be removed, the technicians dehumanize Joel.