A teenager decides, on a whim, to conceive a child.
This week we're thinking about the Logic of Regret. Regret is a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that's happened or been done… especially a loss or missed opportunity. Seems normal enough -- so what’s the puzzle? Well, for starters, it seems irrational to regret the past. You can’t change the past, so why waste time feeling sad about it?
One answer is that regret can make you own up to the consequences of the past. Suppose you forget a good friend’s birthday. You can’t change that, but you can do the next best thing: give her a nice gift to make up for it (maybe a first edition of something by Derrida). So although you know you can’t change what you did, you want your friend to know that you would if you could – that If you had it to do it over, you would've paid attention to Facebook, noticed her birthday, and sent a nice message. No bad feelings for her, and you get to keep your first edition Derrida.
This shows that regret is not just a simple emotion, the way the definition above implies. It also involves what philosophers call a conditional intent: If I had it to do over, I would do things differently. Problem is, that leads to a paradox.
Consider this hypothetical case. Years ago, you and your spouse were supposed to visit a favorite aunt of yours, who was quite ill. You forgot all about it. She was quite upset. Against doctor’s orders, she got out of bed to call you. She fell down, and died. Naturally you’d feel terrible about this, and would regret it to this day -- if you could change the events of that day you would.
But suppose that was the night your oldest child was conceived. She wouldn’t have existed without that exact combination of events, leading to the exact combination of DNA that makes her her. You don’t regret your child’s existence, right? So you wouldn’t do anything, even if you could, to change that day so that he never existed.
But now you’re in a pickle. You regret not visiting your aunt. So you would undo that day if you could. But then…. no daughter. Yet you affirm her existence and wouldn’t undo that day even if you could. We’ve got ourselves a paradox: you both would and would not change the past if you could.
That said, we might ask whether regretting something means having to regret all of its consequences, or whether affirming something means having to affirm all of the events that were necessary for it to occur. Well, you might answer that it’s bad faith, or at least magical thinking, to affirm the effects -- your present life -- without affirming the causes -- the bad things that led to your present life.
Now you may be smelling a whiff of Nietzsche here. He claimed that to affirm your life, you have to think that if you had it to live over again, you would do everything the same, not regretting any of it, no matter how loathsome certain parts may be. That’s a pretty high and impractical standard to meet – but it does go to show that regret is indeed a puzzling phenomenon.