Justin Li

Regret and Responsibility


A couple months ago I had a conversation with a friend. In that conversation, I ended up expressing a belief that hurt them, leading to a month of tense interactions. But, we eventually sorted it out, and in the resulting conversation, my friend asked me, “Do you regret saying what you did?” I replied, “I’m sorry that you were hurt, but I don’t feel guilty about saying it.”

The words “sorry” and “regret” have several related meanings. ”Sorry” can be used to express condolence without implying guilt, as in “I’m sorry for your loss.” It can, of course, also be used as an apology, as in “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Although “regret” can be used in the same manner (”I regret yelling at you yesterday.”), it can also simply express a wish for a different outcome, as in “I regret not getting the chocolate ice cream.” I take my friend’s question to use the apologetic meaning of “regret”.

Let’s assume that hurtful behavior is considered bad by both parties. I posit that when someone (the “perpetrator”) apologizes, they must believe they had somehow wronged the “victim”. The question is, could the perpetrator have hurt the victim without having done the wrong thing?

Here’s an example. It turns out that, in the story at the beginning (which is a true story, by the way), my friend had previously told me that they “would always rather have the truth than ignorance”. So, in our conversation, when they had asked me for my thoughts, I had simply told them what I believed, explicitly as a belief of mine (that is, without implying whether that belief was correct). Of course, they then took it personally, leading to the episode above.

Who was at fault in this scenario? It’s true that my friend was hurt because of what I said, and that I had said what I did intentionally. Intuition suggests that, if that was the full story, I probably did something wrong and should apologize and feel bad.

What throws this intuition off is that my friend had asked what I thought, and that they had stated that they “always” prefer the truth. For past-me, the choice between telling and not telling is obvious: there’s no reason I should withhold what I was thinking. I could argue that, even if I had known that what I said would hurt them, given their preference of truth, I should still have told them. Since I had considered my choice before acting, and since a reasonable person would have done the same, I don’t feel guilty about saying what I believed.

But I could argue the other way. Clearly, I hadn’t fully considered my choice; if I had, I would have realized that my friend’s previous statement was not true. They could have been lying then, or more plausibly, they themselves had not considered all the options before making that statement. That is, while they believed they always prefer the truth, their belief was incorrect. Knowing what I know about human psychology (ie. that people don’t know much about themselves), I should have foreseen that they would be hurt despite their statement, and that should have influenced my decision. I was, in other words, negligent.

The question here is not whether I knew that my friend would be hurt; clearly I didn’t know, which is what caused this problem. The question is whether I should have known that my friend would be hurt, whether I am responsible for having that knowledge, and therefore ultimately responsible for their suffering. But on this question I’m stuck. On one hand, I can’t be telepathic or clairvoyant; there must be a limit to what I can know, and whether my friend had told the truth as they knew it, or had actually told the truth truth, seems to be past this limit. Plus, having to decide between correct and incorrect beliefs for every statement anyone ever makes about themselves seems overly cynical. On the other hand, it is true that people often have incorrect beliefs about themselves, particularly ones that give a more generous picture, in this case, that they are more “rational” than they actually are. Moreover, I know this from reading papers in cognitive bias, and have had enough personal conversations to observe it occurring multiple times.

Personally, I lean towards the position that I should have known, or at least should have doubted the veracity of the statement. At least, I do now that I’ve experienced this whole episode, and I will keep an eye out for these situations in the future. As for the episode itself, I do want to support my friend in their pain, and I do wish something else had happened. In that sense, I’m sorry and I’m regretful, but I still don’t think that I did anything wrong.

EDIT 2013-08-11: It occurred to me that intentionality seems to have nothing to do with regret. Either the perpetrator knew the victim will be hurt, and had therefore deliberately acted to hurt the victim (even if it is the lesser of two evils), or the perpetrator did not know the victim will be hurt, and had therefore chosen as well as they could have. Neither case seems to fit the template of someone who should be regretful, although apologies may be necessary in both cases. This suggests that either regret (or lack thereof) does not depend on intentionality, or the whole concept of regret is faulty.

Regardless, the passages about responsibility still hold, although personally I think both concepts of regret and responsibility are incoherent.