Regret and Obligation
Regret is an interesting mental phenomenon. (1) Some people say that feeling regret is irrational, or even that it is immoral. (2) But surely the usual opinion is that in some situations regret is an appropriate way to react. An interesting question is what it means to say that sometimes it is 'appropriate' to feel regret. Do we have a moral obligation to feel regret sometimes? How could one have an obligation to feel anything, since, at least seemingly, feelings are not voluntary acts? If we do have a moral obligation to feel regret in some cases, does it follow that all good people are emotionally 'hot' while 'cool' persons, who are not able to feel deep regret, are bad? If persons feel automatically regret when they realize that they have done something blameworthy, is it not useless to suppose that they have a moral obligation to do so?
In the next few pages, I would like to briefly consider the above questions and to explicate ways how regret might be a moral virtue. As my aim is to provide merely a brief sketch of how a deeper analysis might go, the discussion that follows may be far from sufficient to persuade readers who doubt the moral worth of feeling regret. But let them decide that themselves.
One way to oppose the view that we sometimes have a moral obligation to feel regret is as follows. To argue that we have such an obligation implies that emotionally cool persons are morally worse than persons who are emotionally 'hot', even hysterical. Persons who are emotionally cool find it very difficult ever to feel regret, while hysterical persons might feel regret at almost any time, even when they know pretty well that there is nothing to regret. However, it does not make much sense to say that hysterical people are morally better than emotionally cool people, who are often quiet, rational and autonomous too. Therefore, there is never a moral obligation to feel regret.
While this objection has some plausibility, the first premise of the argument the claim that an obligation to feel regret implies that emotionally cool persons cannot be virtuous is ill-founded. An obligation to feel regret does have counter-intuitive implications regarding the moral worth of mental hotness or coolness. This is because the notion of regret has various meanings.
It is one thing to regret what one has done, and another thing to regret the circumstances in which one did something. It is one thing to regret what one did intentionally, and another to regret what one happened to cause. Regret resembles such notions as 'guilt', 'shame', 'sorrow', 'disappointment' and 'remorse', but it is not necessarily reducible to any of them. (3) In a sense, regret is itself a punishment. A real punishment may remove regret from your shoulders, (4) but if you don't receive real punishment, you'll be punished by feelings of regret instead. A perfect egoist may behave rightly just in order to avoid painful feelings of regret.
The regretted event is normally in the past or present. But, arguably at least, one can regret something that one intends to do, or something one believes that one is likely to do. As Amélie Rorty has pointed out, it is also possible to regret an event that is the "consequence of a conditional" and to regret the whole conditional. A person can regret that if she were to be pressed into dirty circumstances, so to speak, she would act in a harmful way. While she cannot now regret something embedded in a conditional whose antecedent she regards as improbable, she can now regret being the sort of person who would, under these circumstances, perform an act she considers regrettable. (5)
It is interesting that regret works much like conscience (Latin, 'conscientia'; Greek, 'syneidesis'). Like regret, conscience is usually backward-looking, passing judgment on what one has done or is doing. And like regret, conscience may be forward-looking (or conditional) also, passing judgments on what one contemplates doing (or is likely to do in certain circumstances). Both regret and conscience may have much to do with our motives. However, there also seem to be important differences between regret and conscientia. The verdicts of a person's conscience are confined to her own actions. My conscience cannot say what you ought to do or ought not to do. (6) But surely it is possible to feel regret because of one's ancestors, fellow citizens, colleagues, and others with whom one identifies. (Or should we say that these feelings does not represent regret but are rather feelings of shame?) (7)
Now, what is important here is not whether and how much 'regret' resembles other feelings. What is important is that one of the meanings of regret makes it sound not like a feeling at all. When, in a given case, we think that a person ought to feel regret, we often mean something like what is expressed in following sentences (R1-R3):
If these expressions broadly describe what we mean when we say that a person has a moral obligation to feel regret, then it does not follow that one needs to be emotionally 'hot' or the like. For emotionally cool persons can perfectly well 'acknowledge', 'appreciate' and 'accept' there is no need for tears or hystericism here.
In conclusion, then: Ordinarily, we morally ought to feel regret (or ought not to fail to feel regret) over our wrongdoing, and this does not imply that hystericism (or any sort of mental 'hotness') is a moral virtue. Failing to feel regret is the object of moral indignation and the subject of blame, but mentally cool persons are no more blameworthy than others perhaps they are, generally speaking, less blameworthy. If a person in unable to accept responsibility for her act, it is not because she is mentally cool, but because she is morally bad.
Now, one may argue that there cannot be an obligation to feel regret also by claiming that to suppose the existence of such obligation would be totally useless. It is needless to suppose that there is an obligation to feel regret when one has in fact committed a wrongful act, for persons do not always know whether they have in fact have done something wrong. If there is an obligation to feel regret, it has to be an obligation to feel regret when one believes she has done something morally blameworthy. However, it seems to be useless to suppose that there is even such obligation. For you are a moral person or you are not a moral person. If you are a moral person and you believe that you have acted morally wrongly, you feel regret in the above mentioned sense automatically, just because you are moral person. So it is unnecessary to suppose that moral persons have an obligation to feel regret, for they feel it anyway when appropriate. But if you are not a moral person and you do not feel regret even if you (in some extraordinary sense) believe that you have acted wrongly, you are clearly an irresponsible agent. Therefore it is unnecessary to suppose that persons who are not moral have an obligation to feel regret. By definition, irresponsible persons cannot be held responsible for acting against obligations. So it follows that it is always completely futile to suppose the existence of an obligation to feel regret over one's morally blameworthy acts.
This objection raises interesting and complicated questions. Here we have a chance just to give a quick reply. While it may be true that there is no obligation to feel regret when one is "in fact" done something wrong, there seems to be an obligation to feel regret when people think that something wrong has been done whether or not the agent herself thinks that something wrong has been done. (Presumably, the agent should share others' view. (8) ) At least, so we often think. On the other hand, a person who does believe that she has committed a wrongful act but still does not feel regret seems to be an appropriate target of moral blame as well. For we tend to think that even if this person is not responsible (she does not seem to understand what it means that one has acted wrongly), she should be responsible and should be moral. Intuitively speaking, sometimes we do have an obligation to feel regret.
The question is whether our intuitions are correct. Consider the following well known objection. (9) If it were true that sometimes we have a moral obligation to feel regret, it would follow that sometimes we are responsible for involuntary actions and omissions. This is because feeling regret is an involuntary act or activity. However, we are never responsible for the involuntary actions. We are ethically accountable only for voluntary actions (and omissions), and the function of moral obligations is to guide voluntary action. This is because ought entails can: it does not make much sense to morally blame a person for an act she could not help performing. Therefore, we have never an obligation to feel regret.
It is important to note that this objection does not deny that there might be a moral obligation to pretend that one feels regret. Both those who believe that sometimes there is an obligation to feel regret and those who do not believe so may confess that sometimes we must act as if there were an obligation to feel regret, i.e. to pretend that one feels regret. And both sides may also deny that there is such a phenomenon as moral pretence. So the obligation to feel regret and the obligation to pretend to feel regret have little to do with each other. (If a moral theorist is interested in the ethical consequences of people's actions, then it would certainly be reasonable for her to support the view that sometimes we should pretend rather than to show our real feelings.)
There are two main strategies for meeting the second objection to the view that we sometimes have an obligation to feel regret. The first strategy is to deny that, if it were true that sometimes we have a moral obligation to feel regret, it would follow that we are sometimes responsible for the involuntary actions and omissions. Is it possible that the claim that we should sometimes feel regret is perfectly compatible with the claim that we are ethically accountable only for voluntary actions?
The traditional argument for the claim that having an obligation sometimes to feel regret is compatible with being accountable only for voluntary actions is based on the notion of willpower. According to relatively common interpretations, voluntarist philosophers have argued that a person is able to form both beliefs and emotions voluntarily, simply by an act of will. If voluntarist philosophers are right, then we are able to voluntarily feel regret too by an act of will.
However, voluntarist philosophies are no longer popular, since there are many serious arguments against them. (10) Intuitively speaking, it is implausible that guilty feelings are within our direct control. Although the issue is far too complex to be discussed here, perhaps it is not unfair to presume that (in the relevant sense) acts of will are not enough to create emotions or beliefs.
But there is another argument for the claim that having an obligation sometimes to feel regret is compatible with being accountable only for voluntary actions. This modern and celebrated argument goes as follows. Although one cannot directly control one's feelings, one can control them indirectly. A person can voluntarily take steps that would predictably, over time, develop her mind so that she will feel regret when appropriate. These indirect methods could include voluntary activities such as reading literature, conversing with different persons, helping poor and ill people, studying arts and so on. Our character is partly in our own hands, and that explains why feeling or failing to feel regret is, in the final analysis, based on voluntary actions or omissions.
While this argument deserves much sympathy it is certainly true that we can and should develop our character it seems to still be inconvenient somehow. The point is that we ought not only to try to have the capacity to feel regret; we ought to have the capacity to feel regret. When a person is not feeling regret even if she should, she is not blamed because she did not try enough. Instead, she is blamed because she did not feel regret. (We are not saying that 'you should have read more literature and studied more arts'; we are saying, 'do not you see what you have done?'.) Arguably, this shows that an obligation to feel regret cannot be reduced to an obligation to develop one's character, although this is by no means clear. Perhaps we are responsible for our mental actions just because we are able to form our character, even if do not blame persons for not forming their character properly when they do not commit correct mental actions.
In any case, there is a second strategy for meeting the objection that there is never an obligation to feel regret. This strategy is quite radical, since it denies that we are responsible only for voluntary actions and omissions. According to this argument, we are responsible also for involuntary actions, including states of mind, and so it is not a problem to say that we might be responsible for not feeling regret and that sometimes there is an obligation to feel regret.
On what grounds should we think that we are ethically accountable for involuntary actions and activities as well as voluntary ones? One ground is that in fact we seem to judge people for involuntary actions, involuntary desires and involuntary motives. So perhaps we are justified in concluding that people should be so judged. In his essay 'Involuntary Sins' (1985) Robert Merrihew Adams supports this view:
Adams gives also an another reason for the view that we are ethically accountable not only for voluntary actions. The reason is this: to confess that one is in fact morally responsible for her emotions and character traits helps one to improve one's moral personality. On the other hand, to deny that one is responsible for one's emotional life is to alienate oneself from one's own emotional and appetitive faculties. (12) So confessing that one is ethically accountable for involuntary actions and states of mind is useful and wise, while the denying the accountability is dangerous. No doubt, these are practical reasons, but nonetheless they are reasons.
Adams' discussion is interesting. One way to explain why there could be an obligation to form certain states of mind, say feelings of regret, is to deny that we are ethically accountable only for voluntary actions and omissions. Of course, this way has its own costs, and it is clear that further work is needed here. If we are justified in blaming persons for their involuntarily formed states of mind, are we always justified in blaming persons even if they cannot have chosen otherwise? What is the role of ought-entails-can principle here after all? Another important further question is which and whose beliefs and emotions are or could be blameworthy. It does not make much sense to blame children for believing in Santa Claus. What about love: should a person be blamed if she loves the wrong god, the wrong music or the wrong people? These critical questions, however, do not imply that there can never be an obligation to feel regret. (13) There can be such an obligation, since arguably at least, we can be responsible for involuntary actions too, i.e., if responsibility is a right term here.
An analysis that might be helpful is given in Gary Watson's 1996 essay 'Two Faces of Responsibility'. Watson makes a distinction between something's being ethically attributable to a person (for the purposes of what Watson calls eudaimonistic evaluation) and the person's being morally accountable for it (with regard to the person's being liable to blame or moral sanction). Watson argues that accountability requires a form of control but attributability does not. (14) Still they both are forms of responsibility. Perhaps, then, persons who do not feel regret when they should are indeed responsible for that, although they should not be blamed on that ground.
(1) I would like to thank Paul Benson (University of Dayton), Veikko Launis (University of Turku, Finland) and Saul Smilansky (Oxford) for helpful discussion.
(2) For a discussion, see Rudiger Bittner, 'Is It Reasonable to Regret Things One Did?', The Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992), 262-273.
(3) The relations between these terms is discussed for instance by William Neblett. See his The Role of Emotions in Morals (University Press of America, Washington 1981), esp. section III.
(4) This is one reason why people speak about a moral right to be punished.
(5) Amélie Rorty, 'Agent Regret' in A. Rorty (Ed.) Explaining Emotions (University of California Press, Berkeley 1980), 490.
(6) This point is also made for example by Alan Donagan in his The Theory of Morality (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1977), 132.
(7) Cf. Michael Stocker, Plural and Conflicting Values (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1990), 30. See also, Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1985), 86-87.
(8) An agent might have an exclusive reason to feel regret even if she does not have an inclusive reason to feel regret.
(9) I am greatly indebted to Robert Merrihew Adams' discussion here. See his 'Involuntary Sins', Philosophical Review 94 (1985), 3-31. Adams asks how can we be blamed for anger, since anger is not voluntary state of mind. His question and mine have much in common. See also Edward Sankowski, 'Responsibility of Persons for Their Emotions', Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1977), 829-840.
(10) See e.g. John Heil, 'Doxastic Agency', Philosophical Studies 43 (1983), 355-364 and Bernard Williams, 'Deciding to Believe' in his Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1973), 136-151.
(11) Adams, 'Involuntary Sins', 15.
(12) Ibid., 16-17.
(13) Perhaps we should feel regret even in cases where we do what we ought to but where our action produces easily predictable harmful results? If this is so, then the obligation to feel regret is part of our everyday life, and the situations where we should feel regret are not rare at all. For a discussion, see e.g. D.Z. Phillips and H.S. Price, 'Remorse without Repudiation', Analysis 28 (1967), 18-20; Philip E. Devine, 'The Conscious Acceptance of Guilt in the Necessary Murder', Ethics 89 (1979), 221-239; Patricia Greenspan, 'Moral Dilemmas and Guilt', Philosophical Studies 43 (1983), 117-125; Mark Strasser, 'Guilt, Regret, and Prima Facie Duties', The Southern Journal of Philosophy 25 (1987), 133-146; Juha Räikkä, 'Why Is There a Problem With Moral Dilemmas?', Southwest Philosophy Review 12 (1996), 189-206; Patricia Greenspan, 'Guilt and Virtue', The Journal of Philosophy 91 (1994), 57-70.
(14) Gary Watson, 'Two Faces of Responsibility', Philosophical Topics 24 (1996), 227-248.