Every writer in every genre writes what he, she, they, or someone remembered. We quote people’s memories, cite them, footnote them, rely on them, and hope they are accurate. We spellcheck words about memories in our drafts and touch them up in final submissions. We proclaim, ever so silently, that what we say actually happened, even though the source is someone else’s memory.

Do we care about the ethics of writing another person’s memory? How many of us know how memory really works—in the brain, not the gut or the heart? Memory is nearly as faulty as the volcanic trenches that geologists call “faults.” Frederick Nietzsche famously said, “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” We soon forget what never happened and too late remember that it never happened.

Memory is made in our brains. When we write someone else’s memory, we rely on their brains. Technically, memory is the ongoing process of information retention over time. It is how we make sense of everything. We use it to act now, based on what we learned earlier. We repeat, rinse, and refresh our brains more often than we do our hands during pandemics. Faulty memories generate false realities. They can be fact-checked, but that that too relies on memory.

The essential ethical norm is truth. However, if our memory is false, what we say about what we remember is likewise false, even if we remember it the way we now say it actually happened. In its simplest form, our brains operate 24/7, second by second, to process memory retention over time. Without it, human cognition collapses. We cannot think about what happened in the past without cogitation. We recall and draw upon past events to frame our understanding of the present. Remarkably, it gives some of us the ability to make sense of the future.

Some scientists use pen and ink as a metaphor for memory. “The brain’s memory system works something like a pen and notebook. For a brief time before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. But after the memory is consolidated, it changes very little. Sure, memories may fade over the years like an old letter (or even go up in flames if Alzheimer’s disease strikes), but under ordinary circumstances the content of the memory stays the same, no matter how many times it’s taken out and read.”[1]

Amnesia is the loss of memory. It can be little things, like phone numbers, or big things like who you are. Real-life amnesia is rare. Forgetting is common, at every age. No one thinks forgetting is unethical. But scientists say there is such a thing as “unethical amnesia.”

Unethical amnesia is “an impairment in our memory that occurs over time regarding the details of our past unethical behavior. That is, engaging in unethical behavior produces real changes in memory of an experience over time. People engage in unethical behavior repeatedly over time because their memory of their dishonest actions gets obfuscated over time. In fact, research shows that people are more likely to forget the details of their own unethical acts compared with other incidents, including neutral, negative, or positive events, as well as the unethical actions of others.”[2]

It’s complicated. “Humans care about morality. Yet, they often engage in actions that contradict their moral self. Unethical amnesia is observed when people do not remember or remember less vividly these actions. . . Forgetting past unethical behavior may be motivated by purely hedonic or affective reasons, such as the willingness to maintain one’s moral self-image, but also by instrumental or strategic motives, in anticipation of future misbehavior.”[3]

The academic community has created alternative terms for unethical amnesia. They call it “motivated forgetting,” or more broadly, “motivated memory.” It’s a way to politely approach the sad reality that some people “actively forget and shape the memory of their past unethical actions or unwanted experiences, so that their recalls become fuzzier as time passes. Motivated memory thus complements the wide range of strategies that people can adopt to preserve a positive self-image, such as avoiding information about the negative consequences of their behavior on others, exploiting norm uncertainty, shifting the blame onto someone else, balancing moral behavior over time, or using narratives to downplay the externalities of their actions or their pivotality.[4]

Wow. That’s a fine list of ethical norms. Writers cannot diagnose the ethical frailties of people we write about. But we can be sensitive to people who obviously swim in the ethical amnesia cesspool. For reasons everyone understands, politicians, criminals, and con artists are especially susceptible to some level of ethical amnesia. It is certain that not all of them practice the fine art of ethical amnesia. But for the few that do, writers owe special ethical obligations. Call them out. Otherwise, we too may become infected with ethical amnesia.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-our-brains-make-memories-14466850/

[2] https://qz.com/705793/the-phenomenon-of-unethical-amnesia-explains-why-we-behave-a-lot-more-badly-than-we-remember/

[3] https://www.pnas.org/content/117/41/25423

[4] Ibid.