Dissertation: Agent-Regret in our Lives

I have recently completed my PhD. Below is an abstract. To download a copy, click here. Please feel free to emaill me if you would like to discuss it. 

I analyse the emotion of agent-regret, defend our propensity to feel it, and consider its role in our lives; I do this by arguing that agent-regret concerns one’s responsibility for outcomes, and then I explain why we are responsible for unintended outcomes and why our responsibility matters.

My dissertation has two main parts. In the first, I offer an analysis—considerably more detailed than existing discussions—that clearly articulates the precise nature of agent-regret and the distinction between agent-regret, ordinary regret, “external” regret, and guilt. I suggest that the object of agent-regret is best understood using Honoré’s notion of outcome responsibility: one is responsible for an outcome if it arises because one has tried to do something, even if one didn’t intend to do that thing and wasn’t at fault in doing it. I distinguish agent-regret from guilt by noting that guilt, specifically “the guilt of the morality system”, concerns intentional and faulty action; ordinary regret can apply to any state of affairs or action, and “external” regret involves regretting something one just so happened to be responsible for, not regretting one’s responsibility. To feel agent-regret is to regret one’s own responsibility for an outcome.

I then argue for a novel thesis concerning what I call “pure” agent-regret: one might regret being responsible for an outcome without regretting the outcome. For instance, I might regret that I killed an enemy even though I do not think this enemy being killed is regrettable. I draw parallels with revenge and explore Williams’s work on integrity to make clear that one’s assessment of one’s responsibility for an outcome can differ radically from one’s assessment of the outcome itself.

In part II, I consider the compelling idea (Wallace, Jacobson, Crisp) that we should not feel agent-regret because either we are not responsible for unintended outcomes or such responsibility is unimportant. I argue we are responsible because agency presupposes fallible abilities: in order to bring about any outcome, one must use these abilities; but the nature of these abilities means that, when we exercise them, we sometimes fail to bring about the intended outcome and bring about unintended outcomes instead. The best way of making sense of our relation to these failures is by admitting that although these failures are not authored by us—they do not manifest our values in the world—they still come about because of our exercises of agency. Drawing on Williams, I suggest that a “mature agent” comes to see the unintended effects of her agency as nonetheless hers.

This shows that we are responsible for unintended outcomes, but it does not show us the way in which responsibility for particular outcomes matters. Both Honoré and Williams suggested that one’s responsibility for an outcome affects one’s identity; I explore what this means and how it influences our picture of agent-regret. Outcome responsibility does not affect one’s metaphysical identity, it affects one’s ethical identity. I argue (against Dan-Cohen) that it does this in a non-essentialist way: were I not responsible for this outcome I would still be me, but my responsibility for this outcome affects how I see myself and how others interact with me. Outcome responsibility is important, and responsibility for different outcomes matters in different ways, because of this effect on our identities. Further, killing a child or smashing a vase each affect our identities in different ways, and this is reflected in the quality and severity of the respective cases of agent-regret.

I end by sketching several ways in which agent-regret and responsibility for unintended outcomes underpin valuable parts of our lives, like our achievements. My picture makes sense of various aspects of agent-regret, including the wish that things were otherwise, pure cases, and the desire to make amends. In the most extreme pure case, one might respond by trying to alter one’s identity without attempting to make amends for the harm one caused. The killer’s regret might urge him to change how people see him without urging him to make amends for, say, how his actions affected his enemy’s family. Agent-regret is a self-directed emotion. Yet, despite pure cases, often we regret what we have done because we do care about others, because we regret the harm to them.