Monday, 3 March 2014

Agent Regret and Relationships: Thoughts

I've not posted for quite some time, I'm aware. I feel rather bad about that, to be honest. I had these visions of publishing a post a week, and have fallen abysmally short of this objective. Never fear, however! You try, you fail; you try, you fail; the only true failure is when you stop trying. So I shall try once more to be a little more regular in my posts. Let's see how that goes...

I'm writing today to discuss a topic I consider of great importance, and one which is sadly under-appreciated: namely, the importance the concept of agent regret has for a relationship. Before venturing further I would like to make it very clear now that I am not referring only to romantic relationships: certainly, what I have to say here applies very well there, but it applies equally to friendships, and even familial relationships. Basically, wheresoever a relationship is, there also is this topic.

That aside, let us examine what agent regret is, before turning to its relevance to relationships. Agent Regret is a concept from Moral Philosophy, first put forward by Immanuel Kant, and it features rather prominently in his answer to the problem of Moral Luck. Anyone who knows me well will no doubt be unsurprised that I should be referencing Kant, but I ask you to hear me out; what I have to say is nought of fan-boyishness, no, the connection is mere coincidence.

Agent regret is the feeling of guilt, culpability, or anything of the like, in response to a situation outside your influence, a situation which is nevertheless connected to your actions. A classic example is the case of two truck drivers who consciously neglected to maintain their brakes, so that both had brakes below safety level (let us assume both were equally below safety level). Driving along on two separate roads, both drivers have a child run in front of the truck, and each driver slams on the brakes. Due to the nature of the roads, one driver is able to stop before hitting the child, the other is not, and the latter kills the child. In this case, while the first driver may feel guilty for not maintaining his brakes, the second driver will usually feel guilty both for that and the killing of the child. Kant says, however, that both drivers are equally guilty, the driver who killed the child no more so than he who did not kill the child: the second driver feels worse as a result of agent regret. That is, his actions caused the child to die, and thus he is the agent, but that of which he is guilty in a purely moral sense is deliberately neglecting his brakes, so he can not feel guilt for the killing, but only regret for his actions and his being the agent.

This in a nutshell is agent regret. Now, how does this have relevance to a relationship? I believe that it is in fact not only relevant, but crucial. Often in a relationship one party feels guilty for, say, making the other angry, or hurting them, despite it being necessary: often one party is incapable of acting they way they wish to, or feel they ought to, simply for fear of the resulting effect on the other party, and the accompanying guilt; in all these and other cases, what one feels is agent regret, not guilt. What must be done must be done, and it is important, and, I think, some small comfort, to remember that feeling it is one's own fault, feeling guilty, feeling bad, these are but the effects of agent regret, and do not render one culpable, or heartless.

It is helpful here to examine an hypothetical scenario in more detail, in order to see how agent regret applies to relationships. With the proviso mentioned above, i.e. that this is not exclusive to romantic relationships, and certainly not to difficult or 'messed up' relationships either, I nevertheless will use such an example here. I do this because I find it is easier to see a point more clearly when applied in the extreme, which then serves to make it easier to apply in the more usual. Thus, I shall draw the picture of what might be termed a 'messed-up' relationship.

Let us picture, then, a one-sided relationship, boyfriend-girlfriend, etc. Probably teeny-boppers too. One party is temperamental, moody, egotistic, illogical, possessive, and highly emotional; the other party is quieter, tries to please, and so forth. The former has become unbearable, and the latter feels they are slowly losing who they are, or who they ought to be; feels they are slowly dying, to put it dramatically. The latter feels it is time to draw the line, perhaps time to put an end to the relationship, but can not actually do so, and instead continues to subsist, continues to decline this or that opportunity because the other wouldn't like it, continues to give in at every conflict so as 'not to cause a fuss'. They can not act, because they feel it is unkind, heartless, hurtful, or any other variation, and they feel that they can not be responsible for making the other angry or hurt.

How can one act, when every action causes pain? How can one act, when every action makes one responsible for some awful, emotionally draining situation? It is here that agent regret enters from the wings, delivering a monologue to empower our landlocked protagonist to set sail once more on the sea of freedom, to break from the perceived yet non-existent chains that inhibit action. Agent regret serves one to understand that while, as a result of one's actions, the other may react in anger; while the other may be hurt; while the other may make an emotionally draining scene; nevertheless there is no guilt to lay at one's door. The result of one's actions in the given scenario, for example, may be the sobbing, the sorrow, the fury of the other, but these are not the fault of the first. Certainly, they come as the result of one's actions, and certainly, it is sad, regrettable, that this should come to be, but it is not one's fault. The sorrow one feels, agent regret helps us to understand, is the sorrow that something sad has happened, not the sorrow that something has been done, no matter how that sorrow may be perceived.

To do what is right is not always to do that which causes the smallest scene, no, but it is to do that which must be done. The results of doing right may not be what one wishes, but that does not make it any less right to do it. If my best friend's husband or wife is cheating on them over any given period of time, for example, and I find out, I am bound by duty, if I consider myself any friend at all, to tell that friend that their spouse is cheating. That friend may hate me for, may be furious with me; that friend may never speak to me again, and I will feel genuine sorrow about that, I will feel bad about telling them, for the rest of my life perhaps, but that does not make my action any less right. I will regret that we no longer speak, and I will regret that my actions led to that, but the fact we no longer talk, while it resulted from my actions, was not caused by my actions. My friend made that choice, not me; even if I knew they would make that choice, that does not make it my fault.

I believe that agent regret helps us to understand our actions in a relationship, and to see them in a clearer light. I have found agent regret to be of some small comfort myself, and it is my hope and belief that it can serve to help those who struggle with doing that which they want to do, or think they ought to do, but know could have regrettable consequences. Agent regret helps one to see that one can not always blame oneself for the result of one's actions: sometimes, as with the truck drivers, the result is outside our control.

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