Thursday, May 11, 2006

Regret's Implications

Can one truly regret an event but not its consequences? I have in mind the sorts of events long past which were very unpleasant at the time, but about which one might say "they made me who I am today". If you do not regret who you are, can you really regret what made you who you are? Perhaps the most it would make sense to admit is a sort of prima facie regret: "Considered in isolation, that event was most regrettable. But all things considered, I wouldn't wish to alter history."

Consider Parfit's case of the 14 yr old mother. If the child grows up to have a life well worth living, albeit less good than the lives of children with more mature parents, can he rationally regret his mother's decision to have a child so young? He might wish to have been born to more mature parents, but that is not a real possibility. The only alternative is not to have been born at all. And he would not wish for that. So he must be pleased - or at least accepting - of his mother's decision. It was still the wrong decision, for reasons discussed in the linked post. But this attitude might make it easier for the child to live with. He was not harmed by the wrong, after all.

Similarly in the general case, the holistic approach to regret might make it easier to overcome our regrets, which seems like a good thing. You can come to accept past pains in the recognition that, all things considered, you weren't harmed by it. Perhaps your counterpart would have had a better life than you, in which case the past event was impartially bad. It lead to a life less good than some alternative life would have been. But it wouldn't have been your life. So the alternative would not have benefitted you. It would have made you someone else.*

* = (That incoherent claim is metaphorical of course - we cannot violate the law of identity. Really we should say that it would have made someone else exist in your place.)

A curious consequence of this view is that it also makes it harder to regret past injustices. If it weren't for slavery and the Holocaust, let us suppose, we would never have existed. Perhaps if we are very altruistic, we might regret this outcome all the same. But most of us, presumably, are not so altruistic. So we will not regret these events, except in the 'prima facie' sense. Of course, this shouldn't stop us from recognizing that such injustices were nevertheless wrong, and seeking to rectify them and/or prevent such things from re-occurring in future. Still, there's a (very loose!) sense in which you kind of owe Hitler. Doesn't that suck?


  1. Isn't this the kind of reasoning Nietzsche kind of gets at in a few places? The problem is discerning when you are learning from bad experiences. Can we have the view such that eternal recurrence would make us happy and not miserable?

  2. When people say they regret something do they mean what you propose is the meaning of regret?

    I for example don't regret things in the past, in so far as if they changed I wouldn't exist as I am now (I didn't need philosophy to tell me that).

    But others don’t seem to consider themselves to be a variable in terms of "regret" and since they outnumber me maybe it is legitimate for them to define the word and the associated hypothetical if they want.

  3. Clark - I haven't read Nietzsche, so you might need to spell that out a bit more for me.

    Pat - If "regrettable" is simply a synonym for "bad" then yes, that's just what I said. (If it's meant to be tied to actual regret in some more interesting way, say that the action rationally could or should be regretted by the speaker, then that might be more questionable.)

  4. Also for me regret is something you would do in regard to your own actions (even if I hardly ever do it!). I.e. I don't really regret a lightning strike or an earthquake (or Hitler) but I might theoretically regret hitting someone.

    I could regret Hitler by putting myself in the position of "humanity" in the sense in which you avoid the argument Richard brought up.

    Speaking of which I don’t think is properly defined by the term "altruistic" (depending on how you define it I guess) because we are all in the same position - you wipe out the entire current humanity not just yourself by changing the past.

    even from that perspective I find hypotheticals like "if hitler didnt exist" little ill defined because how exactly are we eliminating him from history?

  5. Richard, it's complex and if you haven't read Nietzsche probably not worth going into.

  6. I don't think we necessarily owe Hitler anything, to use that analogy. There are undoubtedly a vast number of possible histories that can lead to the same present moment, so perhaps when we express regret for a past event, perhaps what we're regretting is that the path that actually led to us involved so much suffering when we could have come into being through a much better path. Just think of all the sci-fi novels where the hero travels into the past in an attempt to change the present, only to find that history "snaps back" such that things turn out the same way no matter what he changes.

  7. I think that there's been a mistake here with what regret is, and is supposed to be.

    Regret need not fit logically into our idea of causation and who we are at present and why we are that way.

    Regret is an emotion that tunes us in to what we could have done better and what we can do better in the future. It is not supposed to link up to the conceptual timeline of "if you go back and change event A then events B, C, and D will also change."

    Regret is an emotional state of acknowledgment and recognizing that things didn't happen ideally. It does not follow from this idea that we should not regret things if we also acknowledge that going back and changing those things would alter the present as it is.

    Regret serves a purpose--and that purpose is not at all linked up to our idea of past, present, and future and the way they affect one another.

    There is no inconsistency in me regretting how I mistreated X 7 years ago, even though I also know that without mistreating X I would not be the person who I am today, nor would I probably regret having mistreated X at all. It still makes sense to regret my actions. I regret them because they could have been better ones--the present does not need to factor into my feeling of regret at all.

    Also, I tend to disagree with your idea of overcoming regrets (tout court). There are certain times where people should regret things. And we would want to say there was something wrong with them if they didn't regret. If in a fit of rage I murder my father (when I'm drunk let's say) and then I go on to be an moral saint after that, does this mean I shouldn't regret murdering him? This seems ludicrous. Of course I should regret murdering him. Just because I might be a different person because of it AND I am a genuinely good person now doesn't mean that regretting the murder is making a logical mistake. It just means that I wish things could have been different. There is just no reason to think that regret need be totally logical in its application.

  8. For the first case you mention (an event that "made you who you are today") the solution is simple enough. The event caused you to suffer a harm (presumably some sort of unpleasant experience), but also caused you to develop some personality traits you value. The utility you get from possessing those traits outweighs the disutility you got from the unpleasant experience. So when you say "I regret that event" what you are really saying is "I wish I could have developed those valuable personality traits without having to go through that event."

    The disabled child and Holocaust examples can be accounted for by the following observation. Imagine you have a choice between converting World A into either World B or World C, with World C clearly being the better choice. You should choose C. But just because it is preferable to convert World A into World C doesn't mean that it is good to convert World B into World C.

    To use a more concrete example, if given a choice between my child developing a disability or not doing so, of course I'd prefer the later. But suppose I already had a disabled child, whose personality had been shaped partly by their disability, and suppose a Genie appeared and offered to kill my child and create in his place a version of what he would have been like if he had never been disabled. I would refuse.

    Now, suppose I mentioned to the genie that I regretted that the Holocaust happened. The genie offers to kill everyone on Earth and repopulate the planet with the sort of people who would have been born if it had never happened. The genie will give them false memories so they believe they always existed, and fix all the records and infrastructure so they never notice anything amiss. I would refuse this as well.

    I see no intransitivity in my preferences. I do not think believe it is inconsistent to believe that converting A to C is better than converting A to B, but that leaving B alone is better than converting it to C. I simply recognize that the steps needed to effectively make these conversions involve much larger harms in the second case than they do in the first.

    So when saying "I regret my child's disability" or "I regret the Holocaust," you are saying that the world might have been a better place if those events hadn't happened. But you are not saying that you would try to replace your child, or replace the population of Earth, in the present day.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.