Memento and Locke on Identity and Morality

If Leonard doesn't remember what he's done, is he really Leonard?

I wrote an essay a month or two ago using Memento to look at some questions of identity and morality. There are some spoilers.

Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in its presentation of a startling moral question, raises significant problems for John Locke’s account of personal culpability. In the film, the main character Leonard is inflicted with short term memory loss: every few minutes, all his recent memories are wiped out, and he is brought back to the moment at which he was dealt a terrible injury. To Locke, our memory is the crucial tool we use to maintain selfhood. It is only our continued “consciousness of present and past actions…” that makes us the same person from moment to moment. Under this framework, Leonard would lose responsibility for his actions within minutes of taking them, because as a person he dies and is reborn with the tick of the clock. At the end of Memento’s chronological story, Leonard kills a man, Teddy, for raping and murdering Leonard’s wife. It is later revealed, however, that Teddy was innocent of this crime, and that Leonard had premeditated this murder, leaving his later self with the false impression of Teddy’s guilt. In Locke’s account, the Leonard who avenges his wife’s death is a different person from the Leonard that set up Teddy to die in cold blood – and thus Leonard the killer cannot be held accountable for the actions of Leonard the conspirator. But our notions of morality rebel against this conclusion: is Leonard truly not responsible for Teddy’s murder? Did the culpability pass away with the memory? It seems that Locke leaves us in a troubling bind: guilt is contingent on its own remembrance, and criminals who have forgotten their crimes are sinless. However, in Leonard’s own meticulous record keeping there may be a solution to this dilemma, one which can rescue Locke from the confines of his own definitions.

As he coldly sets up his future self to kill Teddy, our moral intuitions cry out that Leonard hereby seals his responsibility for murder. Locke would, at first glance, not agree. He wholeheartedly believes that memory and selfhood are not simply related but essentially identical. It is in the remembrance of past actions that those actions are incorporated into the present self, and without that memory, it was a different person who acted in the past – maybe the same creature, the same collection of cells and membranes, but a different self. Locke considers the case of Socrates when awake and asleep. If these two states of Socrates do not “partake in the same consciousness,” then they are “not the same person.”  Thus Socrates when awake is totally free of any guilt for the actions of sleeping Socrates. In fact, to “punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates [did and of which] waking Socrates was never conscious of…” would be like punishing a man for the actions of his identical twin. So once Leonard loses his memory of planning to murder Teddy, he is no longer the same person as that murderer, but becomes a righteous avenger. If we still refer to Leonard as the same “he” in both cases, Locke suggests, it is because we have “applied [the term] to… the man [i.e., the physical animal] only,” and not the person.

But maybe we can reconcile Locke and our intuition. The film strongly suggests that to Leonard, what mattered above all else was the need to have an organizing principle in his life, which was otherwise disjointed and meaningless. The most convenient, invigorating goal at hand was avenging his wife’s murder, and so when, later in the film, he was confronted with the fact that he had already taken revenge, he created Teddy as a new target for his future self to slay. In a sense, Leonard was trying to extend his identity as a person in Locke’s framework, trying to fashion a narrative on which he could hang his consciousness. By creating a handbook of hints, facts, and truths – either by reminding himself of reality, like his condition, or crafting lies, like Teddy’s license plate belonging to his wife’s murderer – Leonard is, in Locke’s words, extending his consciousness “backwards to… past action or thought,” and as far back as this consciousness reaches, “so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then…” In what essential way are we different from Leonard? It is less easy to fool our future selves, but we do it all the time: as Leonard himself says, our memory is wholly flawed – his memory is just more external than ours, and less comprehensive. Leonard’s memory lies in the scribbled, desperate note, in the hastily taken Polaroid, in the painfully engraved tattoo. Ours is more immediate, accessible, and thorough – but perhaps this is a question of extent and not of kind. We can therefore conclude that Locke might find that in bonding his current self to his past – tentative though those threads may be – Leonard makes himself one self, a self to whom we can apply “all right and justice of reward,” and all the terrible wrath of punishment.


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