Can We? Ought We?

Just because it can be done, it does not follow that it ought to be done.

This commonplace strikes me as generally reasonable and perhaps platitudinously so. So, for example, just because you can ram your car into your garage door, it doesn’t follow that you should. In ethical debates with a philosophical orientation one often hears the claim, first articulated by Hume, that you can’t get ought from is. In this case, we might say that you can’t get ought from can.

When the ought is generally established or commonsensical, as in the example above, then there is little to talk about. But there are cases when matters are not nearly as obvious. The principle is often cited in connection with new technologies and it is often articulated by those who believe that the mere ability to achieve some specified end, say human cloning, through scientific knowledge and technical manipulation tells us nothing about whether or not such an end ought to be pursued.

Two very recent articles raise the question of the ought-ness of a capability that may be on the horizon.

The first, “Should We Erase Painful Memories,” is an excerpt from Alison Winters new book, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History. It discusses the possibility of memory dampening or therapeutic forgetting, basically erasing certain memories a la The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The second, “The Future of Prediction,” discusses the possibilities opened up for more accurate forecasting by the emerging ability to crunch immense amounts of data. (Unfortunately, you’ll have to endure the Boston Globe’s atrocious formatting to read this article.)

In both cases, an ability to achieve a particular end is in view and it is not at all obvious whether the end is unproblematically desirable or not. Enjoy thinking through these issues. At the moment it is an interesting, speculative debate. In the not so distant future, it may be a concrete decision.

For an interesting model of how to go about thinking about these issues, you may want to consider reading Leon Kass’ “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls” in which he tackles a similar questions with regards to biotechnological enhancements.

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