The Ethics of the "Flashie Thingie" - Men in Black

The question I have deals with the use of the neuralizer, a piece of alien technology used in the “Men in Black” films to erase the memories of individuals who witness extraterrestial activity. Without the knowledge, or consent, of another individual, the MiB alter the subject’s state of mind in radical ways. Key parts of who that individual was, their name, their desires, their past, their family situation, are all overridden with a new set of memories and desires. This is all, of course, for the greater good. The secrecy of the alien presence on Earth is paramount to prevent panic(among other effects). The memories are generally benevolent and designed to disrupt the lives of the subjects as little as possible.

So, here’s the question. Is the use of the “flashie thingie” ethical? Is it significantly different than the old practice of “disappearing dissenters” or using oubliettes? Clearly the impact on the rest of the life is less, but the autonomy of the subject, their right to have their minds and self-awareness be inviolate has been, well, violated. Is this ethical under the circumstances? Is it ethical under any circumstances? Can a character who engages in use of the flashie thingie be considered a good character and a role model?


To the winner go the spoils.

Whoever could create such a neuralizer on our plane of existence would have the natural right to use it as they saw fit… and would most likely have the wisdom to not go neuralizing everyone for the fun of it because that would probably lead to problems.

I would think it rather sad if the lion chewed his claws out then crushed his teeth on rocks because the llama he desired to eat was not as equal as could be.

Stupid, stupid lion.

Considering the mass panic that would ensue without the use of the flashie thingie, I’d consider it pretty important.

And the implanted memories are rarely as extensive as you make them sound (K’s memory rejigger notwithstanding). Usually it’s along the lines of “what you thought was an alien rampaging through New York was actually an exploding water main”. No one’s life has been disrupted, they just get an explanation (swamp gas!) for the weird explosion they just witnessed.

And for that reason, it seems to be pretty ethical. It helps that we’ve only ever seen it wielded by ethical people though.

It’s mindrape. My attitude can be summed up by a character with a mind control technique in Spider Robinson’s Mindkiller; “I never used it unless I couldn’t kill them instead.” Twisting peoples minds like that is one of the most evil things I can imagine; much worse than just killing all the witnesses, bad as that would be. It violate our mind and identity; what makes us what we are.

My opinion of the evil and destructiveness of religion is well known here. How would all the religious people of this board feel if I proposed using some gadget to erase all knowledge and belief of their religion from their minds, and turn them into atheists, without consent ? Does that bring it closer to home ?

Personally, I’d want to see everyone who used the things executed.

I’m interested in where this idea comes from, as it seems to be pretty common. I’ve heard that most people do believe in ETs and a significant number believe that ETs have visited us. Hell, a lot of people think that our government is in cahoots with ETs.

Do you think it’s really true that proving any of these things would cause some kind of mass panic?

Also, I agree with Der Trihs, except about the executions. Messing around with somebody’s mind rather than letting them know the truth about something is the worst kind of power play.

So we should put you down on the “Does not approve” side of the issue then? :wink:

Well, I would come down in general on the side of Der Trihs, except for this:

Uh, seems to me that even in this execution-happy society, we have something of a tradition of not generally executing people for crimes that are not fatal to the victims. Well, Texas is currently trying to change that, but still.

Meanwhile, I say not ethical, and several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seem to back me up:

A person’s memories are solely their personal property, and in the films the flashie thingie (FT) is clearly used in a rather arbitrary manner to deprive persons of that property.

While this article clearly deals primarily with religious beliefs, the wording seems to establish that all thoughts, religious or otherwise, are protected. In my interpratation, use of the FT violates this protection by depriving individuals of one of the means (memories of previous experiences) by which they formulate their thoughts.

Seems pretty clear that using the FT on someone strongly interferes with their right to hold opinions without interference.

So, unethical in several ways. Have the MIBs hand 'em in immediately.

I find it quite disturbing that


I’m sorry, what was the question?

How happy is the blameless vessle’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

[right]–“Eloisa to Abelard”, Alexander Pope.[/right]


I can see great potential use as a voluntary anti-trauma tool. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would rather forget something bad happened to them. I suppose the greatest problem is deciding in which situations it’s reasonably to allow people to use the thing. A Libertarian view might suggest we shouldn’t coddle, while a more authoritarian approach might suggest witholding it in all but severe cases.

I think in a couple of cases it was used to help with trauma in the films. Arguably so, anyway.

For once, I agree with Der Trihs.

I have a hard time believing that. I’d need to see a cite for “most people” believing in ETs. Perhaps you meant that most people believe it’s possible for life to exist on other planets?

If it were suddenly revealed that large numbers of aliens were living on Earth, probably. If we found out naturally, starting with the first alien who visits Earth, and then gradually more and more, maybe not. Maybe we’d just become accustomed to the idea.

The ethical implications are interesting, because I saw a piece on TV where a very similar question was being discussed. Medical professionals are experimenting with a drug normally used to control blood pressure - not to completely block memories, but to reduce trauma associated with those memories. Some people were questioning whether it’s a good idea to mess with people’s memories like that. Of course, that’s presumably with the consent of the subject, so it’s not exactly the same issue.

lowbrass my remark was just off the shoulder. I have heard that most people believe in ETs. I did not intend to imply that it is my position that x number of people believe anything. I’m more interested in the question I asked than the accuracy of my other statements.

I just found this really interesting Roper poll (several pages) about UFOs. Among other things, it says:


The poll, unfortunately, does not say anything about the flashie thingie.

In the MiB universe there is a significant alien presence on Earth. Not just an isolated incident(area 51 style), but aliens among us, influencing government policy, and technology. Some of our friends(shopkeepers, etc.) have been deceiving us for decades. Panic and outrage would be the most likely outcomes I would guess.

I was thinking more specifically of J’s reprogramming of Earl’s wife(the guy whose skin was stolen by the cockroach). She was in tears and saying he was a bad husband, but he didn’t deserve to be eaten by a giant cockroach and his skin stolen. K flashie thingied her and said something like “your husband left you, you’re moving along with your life.” J disagreed and decided to re-program her a bit more so she would think she had left Earl and would stand up for herself and change her life for the better from then on. This was the changing, not only of memory, but of her family situation and character, that I had in mind when I wrote that passage. The fact that K didn’t speak up about J’s more extensive reprogramming would indicate that he didn’t care how far J went in his repgrogramming of her mind. I inferred this to mean it was not all that uncommon to go beyond the “it was swamp gas, move on” situation.


You seem to be saying you have a right to do anything you can do.

Think very, very hard before you go any further with that.

He can believe that he has the right to do anything he can do, but that everyone else had better behave themselves, can’t he? I forget what that’s called, though.

No, he seems to be saying that it is impossible to do anything wrong. Anything anyone ever does is ethical just because the person was able to do it. Seems to be an extreme form of moral relativism; I’m tempted to call it nihilism, but the latter does not quite apply because it sweeps away all values, esthetic as well as ethical, and DevNull still seems to have esthetic values.

Ummm…you asked Jay that yesterday. Don’t you remember?

It strikes me as being comparable to a gun for use on people - you don’t want just anybody to do it; in fact, the idea of the of it being used on a person in general is abhorrent. However, we still (in the US, anyway) hand these things out to our law enforcement agencies and other government agents, with the vague expectation that they’ll be used on people.

I think the problem in the movie is that it was used so casually. (Not that I minded it, in the context of the movie, but ethically speaking.) Clearly K didn’t have any ethical qualms about it whatsoever and J was somewhat lacking in training on proper use. This is not generally the sort of thing we like to see in our enforcement officials and government agents.

But then again, it was a comedy, so maybe we do.

(So, Der Trihs, what did you think of that movie? :wink: )