The Ethics of Regret: Towards a Philosophy of Regretting

Regret is a sore topic for me. I, the one who claimed to never suffer from the drinking of its venomous springs. Today, however, I have come, in some ways, full circle. I must state the obvious: I, too, regret. I, too, dream of a time when the past was the present; where my actions would be suspended for a brief moment, a moment in which I would have the omniscient ability to understand the implications of my actions, their repercussions, and my need to change the resulting action(s) which followed (i.e., the actual state of historical events which followed, which I now regret).

But what are the ethics of regret? How does one change things one regrets? Is it possible? If so, in which situations? In all? I have thought about this for quite some time now, and I have found several potentially helpful—and maybe even illuminating—thoughts. Regret, as I have already defined it, is a state of mind in which the author of prior events—events that occurred in the past—is ambivalent towards or would like to change. However, regretting the events themselves does nothing consequentially and ethically speaking—one is merely stuck reminiscing and thinking about the events; nothing of any consequence is actually being done. That is, to put the matter more clearly, nothing is really happening—all regretting, at this stage, is merely a part of the internal state of the individual. The individual is a thinking individual. Apart from the subjective world of the individual and his or her current state of regret, one would never know the particular individual is really regretting at all. Such forms of regret—where no action is expressed, where no thoughts are objectively revealed—I shall call “subjective regret.” This is a form of regret which is internalized, only the individual is aware of the regret and nobody else.

But what in particular does it mean to regret? Why do humans experience regret? I have some thoughts on this, too. It seems to me that regret is a conscious activity—conscious, at least initially—in which the regretting individual thinks ambivalently about his or her past actions. The individual may move between thinking thoughts such as: “I really should not have sent her roses” and “All in all, I do think sending her roses at that particular moment was okay and my best course of action.” The individual is stuck between what he or she did and what ought to have been done; the individual is caught in the tension of what is and what ought to have been. I shall call this the is-ought tension of regret.

Let us pose this theoretical thought experiment: An individual human being has (1) the ability to regret and yet also has (2) the knowledge that past events cannot and never will be changed. The question becomes in this thought experiment, the following: What purpose or function does the act of regretting serve? If the individual cannot actually, physically change anything—that is, the historical set of events which had taken place, which the individual regrets—what purpose does regret serve? Is its purpose transformative—that is, it gives humans the ability to reason, to think about past events, to see if they could, in the future, if a similar event ever took place, act differently? It appears, at least to me, one possible explanation for the origin and purpose of regret. I hope the reader has understood me here. What I am contemplating is the following: If I regretted sending the roses to the girl, my act of regretting and reminiscing about the event will, in the future, affect my actions if such a similar event ever took place. Along these lines, therefore, I am entertaining the thought that regret allows us to actually have the past affect the future in a very real and direct sense. By thinking about our past events we are changing our future actions.

Subjective regret is not the only thing that exists in this world; I, too, have experienced objective regret. I have experienced a form of regret in which I, the regretting individual, have acted differently towards an individual and have attempted to undo the past. Many of us have been in similar situations. For example, after saying something to a girl whom one is fond of, one may decide to regret the events which followed. One would then proceed to speak sorrowfully of all which followed, attempt to change her feelings, etc. The regretting individual may objectify his or her regret. It may become a tangible and real “thing.” My objective regret may take the physical form of a letter. It may take the form of a kiss; a gentle peck falling on her chin. It may take the form of sexual expression. It may take the form of a multitude of days of attempting to “make up” for something one has done. Regret can take a lifetime.

Believe you me, I, too, regret. I am sorrowfully wallowing in it. I sit at its demonic feet every day, listening to all of its lies. I have lived under its shadows for many a night. It is this that drives me; it forces me to rationalize my existence, my feelings, etc. The human being in me wants to change things; the philosopher in me merely wants to reduce things to the printed word. The human being in me aches away in exhaustion; the philosopher in me merely pays lip service to all the injustice perpetrated by our ambivalence. But even such “lip service” may do us no harm…

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

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