Regret Isn't Always Bad, and Feeling It May Actually Be Virtuous!

On the virtue of feeling regret

Posted Apr 22, 2011

Several recent posts at this site have cast regret in a very negative light. (For example, see here, here, and here.) They discuss regret in the context of feeling that past choices were poorly made, and that one's life would have been so much better had different choices been made. Such regrets are harmful, I agree; many varieties of Eastern and Western philosophy speak against such counterproductive and (literally) useless feelings and ruminations, and the posts linked above make this point very well. 

But with all due respect and admiration, I think the understanding of regret that fellow PT bloggers are discussing is rather narrow and extreme understanding, one of natural concern to mental health professionals, but not one that encompasses the sort of regrets that many people feel every day when things go wrong in their lives or the lives of others, either close to them or distant. In this post, I would like to expand the concept of regret to incorporate other common uses of the word. I hope to show that regret, if understood properly, can actually be healthy—and even morally virtuous—and should not be lumped in with the harmful, self-incrimination kind discussed so often (for good reason).

The difference between how I understand regret and how others understand it boils down to responsibility, whether actual and misplaced. Some psychological understandings of regret build responsibility into the concept itself; as a result, to regret something is to feel responsible for it, and this is why regret starts to resemble guilt and remorse as described in the posts of my fellow PT bloggers. I prefer to call this personal regret, since it is so inward-focused and affects personal identity and self-esteem so adversely and intensely. But if we take the responsibility out of it, I think we are left with a much more basic and essential conception of regret that encompasses a wider range of cases, and that also loses the negative connotations.

There are many situations in which we use the term "regret" without implying responsibility. For instance, we may feel and/or express regret when we hear that someone has died; when someone (such as a military representative) has to inform someone of a death, that person usually starts with the words "I regret to inform you that..." In fact, the word "regret" is often used to avoid the issue of responsibility, precisely in cases where "I'm sorry" would be taken as an apology (implying responsibility) rather than a mere expression of sympathy. 

More generally and simply, regret is the recognition that the state of the world is not as good as it could be. This can be because of unfortunate events, inevitable and unavoidable circumstances—or a promise one had no chance but to break—none of which need imply responsibility, guilt, or remorse. It simply means that you wish these things hadn't happened, but it doesn't imply that you could have or should have done anything about it. Even if you have to break a promise to one friend because another friend unexpectedly needs you more at that time, you had to do what you felt was right in a very unfortaunate situation. In such cases, there is no reason to feel guilty—you had to let one friend or the other down—but it is natural to regret that you couldn't keep your promise to the friend you did let down.

The propensity to feel regret can even be considered a virtue (in the spirit of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and the Stoics) insofar as it represents moral sensitivity to unfortunate circumstances. It is similar to the way that getting angry can be virtuous when it's appropriate—for instance, when confronted with injustice. And when confronted with unfortunate (but not unjust) circumstances, tragedies of luck rather than intention, we should feel regret (and sympathy if we are close to the victim of the situation, condolences if the circumstances are particularly tragic, and so forth).

Regret can also be considered virtuous in Aristotle's sense because it is the mean between two extremes: for example, courage is described as the mean between the extremes of foolhardiness and cowardice. In the case of regret, one extreme is the type of regret that my fellow PT bloggers discuss, involving responsibility, rumination, and self-incrimination, and the other extreme is coldness and insensitivity to the plight of others. (Anger, too, is the mean between the extremes of uncontrollable rage and cold indifference to injustice.) Regret, properly considered, strikes the balance between these two extremes, being sensitive to misfortune while avoiding personal responsibility where it doesn't belong.

Again, I agree with the other PT bloggers who write about regret that the extreme kind of personal regret, involving rumination and crippling doubt, is harmful and counterproductive; please read the posts linked above (which are just a sampling) for more on this. But I do also think that focusing on one extreme type of regret does obscure the broader meaning of the word, as well as the moderate version of it, the Aristotelian mean, which is not only healthy but virtuous as well. And that would be a cause for regret!

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