Future Ethics 2 — Changing Minds

The future is now. And the ethical implications are…uncertain.

We’re on the verge of literally being able to change people’s minds in the here and now. There are new medications—or new uses for medications—that will allow people to change how memory and trauma affect them. Anti-depressants already alter the chemistry of our brains for better function and quality of life, the same way insulin regulates blood sugar. We’re so close in some ways and in others, it’s all still science fiction.

The idea that we might be able to control thoughts and thinking and values has been consistent throughout science fiction history. And there are different takes on the ethics of doing so. Often, you have your criminal or alien overlord who controls minds by illusion or pheromones or broadcasting some signal. Sometimes, though, you have a benevolent purpose for mind control—like healing trauma, providing a vacation from reality, or teaching.

A good many readers find the idea of mind control, even beneficial control, to be chilling—and yet appealing, if only in the right hands. Possibly the reader’s hands. That’s probably why we come back to it so often. It’s such a frightening prospect—more terrifying than goopy green blood-sucking aliens is the idea that we might willingly welcome them without regard for our own safety—and yet wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along. What if you could make it so that you never had to study again? Or if you could erase that fifth grade bully and their influence on your life?

In the future, in the future of your favourite science fiction worlds or the ones you dream of, does mind control play a role? Are hardships and trauma dealt with via a shot in the arm—maybe even literally, maybe even a vaccine? I would love to be able to vaccinate kids against the harshness of life before they got out there. How are our ethics and our understanding of the mind going to change if and when we can control it instead of simply observing it, poorly, from within? The answers are likely to be wildly varied and contentious—and that’s what makes them worth exploring in science fiction before we get there in reality.

Until next time,
–Anah & Dianne


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