“Anyone who says they have no regrets is either kidding themselves, or kidding others.” Such are the words of a good friend of mine. He got into a brief debate on Facebook recently after posting the above, which was prompted by another typical self-indulgent sob-story on The X Factor. “Your dog died, aww that’s a shame…can you sing??”

But I digress. He asked me if I agreed with the above, so I thought I’d elaborate on my reply to him and post it here.

Do you have any regrets? Is it right to hold regrets? Is it normal? Is it healthy? Are there really any people who honestly have none?

What is a regret? I will define it simply: you regret a choice you made if you wish you would have chosen differently. Note that regret can only apply to our own actions; it makes no sense to regret something that you didn’t have a choice in. So, one cannot regret getting cancer, or being hit by a car – if those incidents were outside your control. Being honest means being true to oneself, which means accepting that reality is of a certain order and no amount of praying or wishing or cheating or denial will make an apple an orange or 2+2 equal 5.

Omniscience is not a valid epistemological foundation, and any school of thought based on this is meaningless. Your knowledge is contextual, and therefore so are your choices. Regret cannot mean “if I could go back in time…”, well – you can’t. And if you could reverse the clock without the knowledge of today you would do the same thing anyway. A “what if” definition is inapplicable to reality and human beings. You cannot have hindsight when making a choice; you only have the knowledge available at the time. It makes no sense to regret a choice based on knowledge you didn’t have. For example, suppose as next of kin you make the critical choice to turn off a life-support machine, only for a cure to be discovered a week later. Should you regret your choice? Absolutely not. You made the decision you believed to be the right one, at that time, with the body of knowledge you held.

If, when making any choice in life, you do so honestly with the best rational intentions at heart, acting on all the knowledge available to you, you should sleep with a clear conscience.

So, does this mean that real regrets don’t exist? No. Just as regretting an honest mistake is as foolish as regretting the inability to fly, not regretting a deliberate mistake is another act of kidding oneself. If you made a decision that you knew or believed at the time was the wrong one, but still went ahead with it, you certainly should regret it. We aren’t infallible, but that’s no excuse for trying to cheat reality. So for example: getting drunk before an early start; an easy lie in the present that becomes a major problem in the future; being too afraid to say “no” when you wanted to; having unprotected sex.

It’s the wrong choices you make, deliberately, fully cognisant, that are regrettable. Sadly, like the honest mistakes, you can’t change these either. But what you can learn from the regrets that you can’t learn from the honest mistakes is: not to do it again.

So two questions remain: are there really people who have no regrets? I doubt it. Can anyone say they have always done what they thought was the right thing at the time?

And: is it possible to live without regrets? Yes, in principle. Draw a line under the past, and make every choice a fully-informed, rational, and honest one. Even if it doesn’t work out, you can still say ‘I did the right thing.’


2 Responses to “Regrets”

  1. BlackSun Says:

    It is easier to understand regrets when you take the perspective that we have multiple selves. For example, the one that wants to have a late night partying and the one that wants to be responsible and be on time for work. In this instance, a present self is at odds with the interests of a future self. This conflict is responsible for all manner of regrets, indecisions, mixed feelings.

    The brain is really good at changing the perceived importance of whatever “self” satisfies its immediate desires for gratification. Whole and responsible people have a strong “king” of their inner council table who can subdue the impulsiveness of other brain centers and insist on delayed gratification and following long-term plans.

    Regrets are most likely when life is devalued as the king of “Self” is betrayed over time by a bunch of other petty “selves” getting their way.

  2. evanescent Says:

    Hi Blacksun,

    I disagree with your model of the human mind. It ignores the reality that man is a volitional being who has the ability to choose his values rationally and how he reacts to them.

    It is true that it seems people can be very different from one occasion to the next, but rather than it being different selves or personalities, it’s simply contradictory states brought upon by a non-objective worldview. If you hold your ideas and values in an floating vacuum without reference to any guiding principles, you will naturally be blown one way or another, wishing one thing then changing your mind, and going wherever your emotions take you.

    A man who commits himself to using reason bases his decisions on objective principles, and pursues the values his life requires, and experiences emotion as the reward for his correct choices. He doesn’t feel the conflict you describe above. And he doesn’t regret the honest mistakes he made.

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