A Philosophy of Regret

imageRegret, as we know it, does not exist.

What has traditionally been called “regret” is actually a misnomer for shame, disappointment, guilt, mourning, etc., of outcomes — not decisions.

We typically understand regret as being a feeling that we ought to have made a different decision. This is not the case. We actually mourn the outcome of a decision.

Consider the difference between the following sentences:

“Do you feel bad about what you did?” and

“Do you regret what you did?”

At first glance, some might equate these questions — we ought to, for they really reference the same issue: some disagreeable result. Yet under traditional usage, if we feel regret for something, it was because we ought to have chosen otherwise.

Yet if we regret a decision, in some sense that could mean we were not in control of that decision. If it is indeed the case that we were not in control of our decision, then regret is not necessary, for the decision was out of our hands. Being held morally responsible necessitates our having been in control of our actions.

In another sense, regretting a decision would be like a future you judging a former you. What good does that do? The deed is done; blaming yourself runs the risk of holding yourself back or making yourself feel bad. We can certainly learn from our lessons, but feeling bad about a decision is really pointless.

So how do we address regret?

Socrates claimed,

The unexamined life is not worth living.

This is helpful, but insufficient. Did he mean that we must spend all life in contemplation? What percentage of our lives ought to be reflective? What percent lived?

To start, we must address the harmonization of belief and action. Action is easy enough. Yet beliefs ought to incorporate that Platonic examination. Examining beliefs is a common element of philosophy. We will not address the extent to which such is necessary here. Let us assume a belief has already been tried in the flames of reason and experience.

Concerning “regret”, I think we need to address what I call “moral courage.” This does not refer to, say, being brave, or being brave about moral issues (e.g., preventing a helpless old woman from losing her purse to a thief), but rather identifies the extent to which one’s beliefs and actions are in harmony.

Action married with belief is the crystallization of pure integrity. If a belief married with action produces an unintentional consequence, while blame might rightly be placed on the consequence, praise is to be poured upon the deed. If you do something you didn’t know was wrong, you should not regret it.

When we peer back in time, we must realize there is nothing to regret now concerning a decision made then by the you that you were.

Even if my reasoning is disagreeable, at least consider suspending judgment on well-intentioned actions made in the past, given what you knew and believed to be true at the time.

Many philosophers, including Hannah Arendt and Frederich Nietzsche, believe we can’t fully control outcomes. I agree.

Taking action is a gamble — taking action in accordance with your beliefs is not.

If something you do produces wrong, don’t do it again. If you did something not in accord with your moral compass, realign that compass, or don’t do it again.

View morality and value judgements as an ever-developing process; square what you believe with what you do and you’ll have nothing to regret.

I think.

[“Integrity” is very close to moral courage, yet usually carries heavy connotations of moral uprightness. An evil man can have just as much moral courage as an “upstanding citizen” insofar as they both live out the full meaning of their particular creeds. Whether an action produces harm or good and therefore has a moral component to it, is a separate issue altogether.]