Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Michigan State University
Department of Philosophy
Jamie Nelson, Ph.D.
neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, memory, obligation, duty, remembering, forgetting, collective memory, neuroethics
Applied Ethics | Philosophy
Forgetting a birthday, a wedding anniversary, a beloved child's school play or a dear colleague's important accomplishments is often met with blame, whereas remembering them can engender praise. Are we in fact blameworthy or praiseworthy for such remembering and forgetting? When ought we to remember, in the ethical sense of 'ought'? And ought we in some cases to allow ourselves to forget?
These are the questions that ground this philosophical work. In fact, we so often unreflectively assign moral blame and praise to ourselves and others for memory behaviors that this faculty, and moral responsibility for it, deserve careful philosophical attention.
These questions of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness for memory do not pertain only to individual memory behaviors. Collective memory behaviors may also be morally blameworthy or praiseworthy. Consider the matters of how South Africans go about remembering apartheid, how Bosnian Serbs and Albanian Muslims go about remembering their conflicts, or whether and how Americans "never forget" September 11, 2001.
In fact, individual and collective memory are not as separate as you might think. Though individual memory is based in the individual's biology—the functions of the brain—individuals are members of collectives; our individual memories are both shaped by social interaction to a surprising degree and major loci of collective memory. Thus, determining moral blameworthiness or praiseworthiness for memory behaviors is a complicated philosophical endeavor. To address these issues, I set myself three tasks. First, to analyze the nature of both individual and collective memory using philosophical, neuropsychological, sociological sources. This reveals that both individual and collective memory are best conceived as constructions, not necessarily inaccurate, but certainly not perfect recordings of events. Individual memory constructions are influenced not only by our choices, but also by neurological and social determinants. Individuals are one locus for collective memory storage—others include memorials, books, songs, and national holidays—and are agents for collective memory construction.
My second task is to analyze moral responsibility, specifically what makes us praiseworthy and blameworthy. Ultimately, I reject libertarian conceptions of moral responsibility and adopt Nomy Arpaly's influential reasons-responsiveness which holds that the moral worth of an agent depends on the moral desirability of an action and the degree of moral concern with which she pursues it.
My third task is to apply this analysis to both individual and collective memory behaviors. In doing so, I generate a preliminary set of twelve rules for both individual and collective memory behaviors, each defeasible under conditions that change whether, and the degree to which, moral agents should be held praiseworthy or blameworthy.
I intend that these twelve rules and their attendant considerations of application and defeasibility provide not only philosophers but moral agents more generally with useful tools for a reflective ethics of memory. By such means may we all remember and forget rightly, and not for ill.
Crane Reinheld, Alison Nicole '93, "Rightly or for Ill: the Ethics of Remembering and Forgetting" (2010). Doctoral Dissertations. 22.