Monday Musing: Regarding Regret

[Abbas Raza is filling in for Morgan Meis, who is indisposed.]

Recently someone asked me one of those highly meaningful questions, the answers to which, if shared, are supposed to tell both persons very important things about each other. The question was: “Is there anything you really regret in your life?” I didn’t know how to answer that. At first, I tried to take it pretty seriously and actually catalogue the things I regret, but soon realized that I wasn’t quite sure what to include. The time I hit a guy in a fit of jealousy at a party when I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins? Should that be included? It felt kinda’ right at the time. How about the time I failed to stand up for a friend of mine in grade school when he was about to be beaten up? Definitely the time I told my mother at age twenty that I no longer needed her. Yeah, that one should surely be in the list. What does it mean to regret something? That you would go back in time and change it if you could? That’s too easy. I would go back and change so many things if that were easily possible: I would even change that time I took too sharp a left turn at the end of our street and skidded off my bike and skinned my knees and elbows. Does that mean I really regret having skinned my knees and elbows? Well, yes, of course, in some sense, but I don’t think that was the sense that my friend had in mind when asking me about what, if anything, I have regrets.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that regret is an oddly neglected emotion. There are volumes of philosophical writings on shame, for example. Anger is studied carefully and documented. Fear is feared, but also cultivated as an odd pleasure in everything from roller coasters to horror movies. Even guilt, regret’s more dangerous second cousin, is explicated, assuaged, overcome. Regret, however, remains unanalyzed. Regret is a sadder, less instructive emotion than guilt. Regret means nothing beyond itself. Regret is completely empty. But regret is real.

“What do you regret?”

As I already mentioned, in some sense you regret everything that has ever caused you pain or even discomfort. But that doesn’t answer our question. What do you really regret? I don’t know. What work is that italicized “really” really doing in that question? I really don’t know. What can we do to figure this out better?

First, let’s explore, a bit more, the idea of going back and changing things if we could. Here’s what I’m thinking (and, yes, I am actually doing the thinking as I write this): what makes the idea of going back and changing things if we could, completely trivial, is that there is no cost to us in doing it, so we are tempted to change even the smallest things that went wrong. So what if we put a price on these time travels? How about if you had to lose a digit each time you went back to change something? That’s silly. We have a better way of valuing things. It’s called money. So, what if it costs $10,000 to go back and change any single hour of your past life? This would surely make one narrow down the things that one wants to change. (Okay, yes, $10,000 may still allow Bill Gates to go back and change even the smallest things he ever has even a slightly negative recollection of, but let’s fix that by assuming that $10,000 means the same to all of us. You can do this by, say, giving all of us the same imaginary income of $100,000 per year, or you can adjust the amount itself to be 10% of the person’s annual income, whatever it may be.) Just stick with me, will you? The important thing is that all of a sudden I am not so interested in spending 10,000 dollars that I have in 2005 to change a skinned knee that I had when I was a child. How about being able to take back what I said to my mom when I was twenty? I’d have to think about it. Because I have responsibilities to my wife now. Okay, this is better. It puts an actual price on regret, quantifies it, makes it understandable in modern economic terms. I would pay $3,556 to go back and erase that terrible comment to my mom. How’s that?

Yeah, it still sounds silly. Why? Because of how arbitrary the amounts are. My friend could have asked me “how many over-$10,000 regrets do you have, but why that particular number in the question? And how could I be sure that I am valuing my regrets correctly? After all, it is all hypothetical. This isn’t a real auction of regrets. All this economics of regret is stupid.

Okay, how about a moral philosophy of regret? Here’s a totally different way of looking at the problem: my erstwhile Ph.D. advisor, Akeel Bilgrami, came up with a convincing concept in moral philosophy, that of fundamental commitments. Let me explain: we normally hold many moral values, such as “don’t tell lies,” or “don’t hurt people,” or “don’t allow those you love to be hurt,” etc. These values often come into conflict, as we all know well. It may well hurt someone if we tell them the truth. (Does my butt look big in this?) We may have to lie to protect people. (Nazi comes to your house in Berlin in 1940 asking, “Are you hiding any Jews in your house?” and you are.) Now, Akeel’s claim is that while we normally constantly assign greater or lesser values to various of our moral values in negotiating ethical space and deciding what to do, there are certain moral values which we hold that are special. They are special because they are constitutive of our identity. Let me explain by an example that Akeel himself gave in class once: while Akeel was a young Rhodes scholar at Oxford, his roommate was a young man who was dealing heroin. Akeel saw this guy ruining many other students’ lives by getting them hooked on heroin, and protested to him, but he was unrepentent. Still, he was Akeel’s friend, and Akeel liked him in many ways.

One day, the police arrived at the door and told Akeel (his roommate was out) that they knew his roommate was dealing heroin. They demanded to be let in to search the apartment. Akeel asked if they had a warrant. They admitted that they didn’t, but if Akeel told them that he believed his roommate was dealing heroin, they would have a legal excuse (“probable cause”) to come and search the apartment, and if they found anything (which they would have), to arrest the roommate. Now, normally, Akeel should have weighed the destructive influence that his roommate was having on so many young people against his loyalty to his friend, but he didn’t have to: instead, he said, “No, absolutely not. He is not dealing heroin.” Why? Because ratting out a friend would go against a fundamental commitment that Akeel held. That of loyalty to a friend. Had he gone against that, he would no longer know who he was. His identity would break down. He would become another person. Essentially, he would have had a nervous breakdown.

So, second, we have this possible way of isolating the experiences that we “really” regret: they are those that caused us to break one of our fundamental commitments. You may not regret having caused harm to countless young students who were harmed by your roommate, but if you turned him in, you will always regret it. (If loyalty to friends is one of your fundamental commitments, that is.) Yes, maybe. I still don’t know.

The third way of looking at regret that I can think of is due to my wife (who just read what I have written so far), and is related to the second. It is this: regrets are what make you who you are. We are not fixed selves, morally or otherwise, and what we regret is the most important ingredient in what constitutes us. By this view, it is meaningless to ask what our regrets are, because by definition we cannot regret what we are, even if we (in the earlier senses) regret what we have done. I suspect this is correctish. The other thing my wife just said, and again, I think she is right, is that the ultimate literary symbol of regret is the road not taken.

But one more last thing. While we are speaking of literary things, check out Hemingway, the greatest stylist of the twentieth century, as he so easily nails down the concept of regret with the infinitely poignant cadence of a single sentence toward the end of A Moveable Feast:

When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.

My other recent Monday Musings:
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President