The Logic of Regret

Sunday, June 17, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 18, 2015

What Is It

A teenager decides, on a whim, to conceive a child. Even though we might say that this decision was irrational, she cannot regret it later, because raising the child eventually becomes the most important part of her life. Cases like this show how complicated regret is: that an action was irrational or wrong doesn’t necessarily imply that we should regret it. When, then, should we regret? For that matter, why should we regret anything at all? Doesn’t the feeling of regret just add more pain to circumstances that are already unfortunate? How can it possibly be rational to affirm actions that one knows were wrong? John and Ken don't regret talking to Jay Wallace from UC Berkeley, author of The View From Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret.

Listening Notes

Regret: a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or that has been done, especially a lost or missed opportunity. With this definition, Ken opens the show and wonders whether it is rational to miss the past: we cannot change it, so why waste time feeling sad and disappointed about it? John suggests that we can own the consequences of our past and do something about them. So while we can’t change what we did, confirms Ken, we would if you could: a conditional intent is involved. But a paradox arises here: if your aunt is very sick, you don’t visit her, and she dies, would you regret not visiting and change the past if you could? John affirms. Ken continues: do you regret the birth of your son, and would you change the past if you could? John denies. Ken shows, then, that we both would and would not change the past if we could. John denies the clarity of Ken’s principle: if we regret or affirm something, does that mean we regret or affirm all of the thing’s consequences? Ken says yes and remains puzzled by the phenomenon of regret.

John and Ken welcome guest Jay Wallace, Judy Chandler Webb Distinguished Chair for Innovative Teaching and Research at the Department of Philosophy, UC Berkeley and author of The View From Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret. Jay first explains that he has noticed that there is a diversity of attitudes toward regret. Some people are not tormented by things that they’ve done in the past and others are constantly second guessing their histories. Neither of these attitudes seems appropriate; they are both problematic. One attitude is superficial, the other is of someone who never progresses in life. This raises a philosophical question of what regret might be and whether there are times when it is appropriate to feel it. So, John asks, why should we feel regret over something that is done? Self-correction is a way to justify regret, explains Jay. Regret is connected with a more profound human phenomenon that contributes greatly to the value of our lives: attachment. Being attached to others makes you vulnerable to regret.

Ken asks: does it make sense to regret something that you’ve done badly but which later led to good results? Jay says that there is a marked distinction between the bad feeling of regret and the intention, and he sees a paradox within the latter element: you opt to not want to have done what you did in the past but at the same time it brought the good consequences to you and led you to your present life. If you are in that situation, Jay claims, you can’t really regret the mistake that gave rise to a good result, to valuable things in your present life. John says if you will the end you have to will the means. He thinks it is an illusion that if you regret the event, you must regret the consequences. But what about the other side, asks Ken? Suppose you affirm the consequences: if you affirm the end point, must you not also affirm what brought you there? John answers is no, you regret a particular event, not multiple events put together.

John, Ken, and Jay welcome questions from the audience. Ken starts off by asking Jay what regret means to him. There are different kinds of regret, explains Jay. People ask in plural: do you have any regrets? And this kind of regret being asked about is superficial. You can have regrets without conditional intention, but there is an unconditional regret that does involve a determination of the will, something more like a conditional intention. If you could do it over again you would do otherwise. Among the topics further discussed are concerns about the interplay between guilt and regret and whether guilt is always a precursor to regret, the question of whether there is such a thing as collective regret (i.e. climate change), and if there is, is it important, and whether, when no action can be taken for a past mistake, this is a sort of punishment.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:15): Shuka Kalantari explores childhood regret as an important tool for development. Memories of regret seem to linger forever and sink us into darkness, so is it better to live by the motto “No Regrets?” She speaks with Emer O’Connor, a Psychologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, who disagrees with this motto, as regret help us to change our decision making behavior. A balance is needed where we can learn about our mistakes and then move on.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:47): Ian Shoales speeds through his regrets of things undone - regret is a weird thing, as is the word “regrettable,” as is…regret in superheroes? Is there such a thing?



Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, July 9, 2018 -- 11:28 AM

Regret is like guilt. A

Regret is like guilt. A popular joke, attributed to the Jewish ethnicity, goes something like: 'Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.' How true. I think we teach our children (and each other) the 'virtue' of regret, even when there is no useful or educational reason for doing so. Indeed, the syndrome may be devastating; emotionally and developmentally damaging; even (as demonstrated): deadly. I (and some others) have noted the disturbing regression to tribalism in society-at-large, in too many aspects of daily life. This does not bode well for the furtherance of a civil society of the personal welfare of its constituents. Virtue, indeed...