The regret

by Ana Bazac

  1. One of the most neglected concepts by philosophy was and is the regret. The reason is the huge content of personal responsibility towards the phenomena contemplated with sorrow. And for the regret is not only a sentiment of sadness related to what had happened – or could have happened but did not – but also one of remorse. And we know from psychology that the remorse is so difficult to support[1], namely to fit to and converge with the deep feeling of personal identity/self-esteem/telos, that people defend themselves from remorse by forgetting the facts which led to it.

Especially in our modern functional languages, we have no so many words as they to transmit the subtle nuances of our feelings and deeds. Or we have, but we have forgotten them. We say frequently “I am sorry”, but we are often detached from both the meanings of the phrase and the events in front of whose we express our attitude. By the way, these events are only bad – not good –: from the malignant ones, issued as evil-intentioned and directly leading to tragedies, to the undeserved good fortune of some ones that once more prominences the undeserved distress of so many. This specific of the facts we loathe was addressed long before as that which deserves punishment; the facts cannot be ignored and are not simply the reason of others’ envy[2], but are so blameworthy that the old Greeks have personified the normal inner feeling towards them as Nemesis, the goddess of indignation against and right retribution of the evil deeds.

  1. Therefore, the events in front of whose we express our attitude are of two kinds from the standpoint of their position towards us, or better of our position towards them. Some ones were and are independent from our possibility to control them: absolutely exterior to people, as the hurricanes and the tsunamis which they do not blame since these phenomena are natural and, thus, are considered only as objective events. Such an event is the inevitable death occurring to everyone: people are sad in front of the death of a fellow man, but they are only sorry for him, do not blame the death as such. No one is responsible for the death as such. Yes, but he/she may be responsible for the kind of death, the time it occurs and the circumstances where the inevitable passing away implies evitable suffering.

It follows that we understand that there are also other events in front of whose people express their pain: the events which are the result of the human action and which they consider as causes of the bad upshot. As we know, people have arrived at the causes of things when they have begun to reflect the relationships between these things, their consecutio. And although from this standpoint people have understood that there are objective causes – as the material and the formal one, let call them with the cultured concepts – philosophers like Aristotle have added to these ones one that arises from the functionalist point of view that linked the objective appearances to the human subjects who observed and even manipulated them: this special cause is the telos, i.e. the reason things exist as they are. But the reason – pertaining to the logos of the entire kosmos and thus being objective, and even though the man’s logos was conceived of as part of the universal one and matching to it – was and is a human conclusion about the functioning of the world, and was related by Aristotle – according to the examples he gave in order to make understood this functioning – rather to the human endeavour, attempts, actions and dreams; as the other cause, the efficient one, was.

Consequently, though there are objective causes of things, there are also causes depending on the human action, in fact, on the human perspective about things. And if the accepting of objective causes once more leads to the accepting of objective things – which are exterior to the human power – the existence of so many objects resulted from the human intentions and actions shows that man has a huge responsibility for the appearance of the world as he constructs it. Many things are the direct result of his intentions and actions: providing him gladness, pride and delight, but also bitterness, dismay, despair. And since man praises the first – and he never thinks about them as being objective, but as being human facts springing from human minds/intentions/wills – he does blame the second ones: as the causes of his suffering and anger. The thoughts and deeds of his fellow men are the causes of his pain.

Therefore, the content of facts, events and phenomena is that differentiates the attitudes of people in front of them. If people are sorry, they are not for the hurricanes and tsunamis, but for the men, women and children damaged by them. People do not regret the objective causes of their occurrences[3], but they certainly regret the human behaviours that determined their affliction. And though – firstly, because they did not understand the intertwined chains of reasons, interests and facts – folks have imagined that they would have been innocent and only having the destiny forged by gods (and have developed this representation as a very powerful tradition) – the human behaviours cannot be hidden behind the veil of objective and impersonal courses of events[4]. Because: the human behaviours involve the human understanding, feelings and intentions[5]. And the regret is so painful just because it is towards these human understanding, feelings and intentions: in their deep down, people never confuse their own guilt/ the guilt of concrete people with the objective bad phenomena and course of things.

  1. Further, the scruples and compunction are so difficult to assume and express – actually, to face them within the internal debates of consciousness, and not only to recognise them publicly – for the human causes move between their possible reverse and their definitive generation of things. The fillings determined by and towards the first causes – whose results might be repaired – are not the same as those towards the second ones which lead to irreversible situations. These ones cannot be remedied and appear as something impersonal irreversible Dei ira or as cold objective “invisible hand” of the inevitable occurrences.

The human psyche – and not only, but certainly, the political institutions too – have discovered that the answer to the deterministic quality of man is one of the most powerful means to control him: to give him peace, inner comfort and complacence, or worm of conscience, contrition, qualm and remorse. People have imagined such answers in order to avoid the painful thoughts and contrition until their obliteration from the field of their own consciousness and of their fellows: and the historical institutions did the same, obviously not only for psychological reasons.

  1. However, people do regret their own actions in a different way than that regarding the facts of their companions. They have many problems in acknowledging their own deeds and the consequences of these ones, but are ready to saying aloud the evils resulted from the actions of the others and blaming these ones.
  2. And just because it is far more difficult to express the regret of their actions, people have used and use to hide behind the collective actions which they are part of and that they shared and share. Since – as Plato said very long ago[6] – even though people are determined by many things with a more or less impersonal face, it is their own will, their own decision which chooses a certain reaction, reasoning, argument and behaviour, and not their surrounding determinant milieu. Therefore, the individual character of decision gives rise to the individual responsibility that no human being can deny. But for the consequences of this individual responsibility – or better, lack of responsibility – were and are so hard, people have transformed the collective and/or impersonal institutions with the help of which they manifest as species in the source of bad occurrences and facts: thus in the subject of decisions and the substitute of their own responsibility.
  3. The present paper cannot analyse all the aspects of the concepts reduced here only to that of the regret. In fact, this one is viewed rather through its uttered form, because without their conveying as regret the remorse, the ruth, the penitence and their sorrow are difficult to be understood as universals. Therefore, not their psychological and moral origin – the guilt and shame – and nor their analytical treatment that rightly rejects their neglecting under the pretext of their (real) position in the religious tradition and that shows the irreplaceable moral worth of remorse as signal of an ethics of care – and not only of rules/standards – for the others and altruism[7] are the problems indicated here. Actually, just the articulation aloud of the regret shows the recognition[8] of the others, including as sources of moral judgements and values, and as their criteria (criteria of classification, of distinguishing the good from the evil). As sign of capacity of orientation towards values, a spoken phrase communicating regret is also the sign of the intention to overhaul, to rectify, to redress the anterior bad situations, and is followed by the reparation of the indicted facts. And though the time is irreversible and thus the events do bifurcate its flowing – they do create new courses of things – the reparation as such of the old facts never being possible, actually the expressed regret for these old facts is the recognition of both the past wrong-doings and the commitment to not repeat them.
  4. The deeds of man have results on short, middle and long term; and certainly, at the narrow level of private relationships but also at the larger one, the public level of the making of the social environment proper to live within and the collective future. The temporal view is important because sometimes people arrive to no longer might repair their previous words and deeds: and in order to avoid this effect, man must have a strong anticipative approach. And though anticipation is a constitutive side of the human logos, it should not be taken for granted, neither regarding the transfer of human responsibility to machines (today – to the AI)[9] and nor concerning the moral relationships. In this respect, the spatial perspective should be never neglected because though people do not like to say “I regret” and “please, forgive me” in any of the instances of their life, they can easier express this, and thus repair their previous words and deeds at the private level. Or, with all the possible tormenting suffering of the close-knits generated by folks, at the level of relatives and acquaintances there are feelings people do not experience (or much weaker) at public level – love, interdependence, mutual reliance, even habits and tradition – and that push people (at least in present) to prevent and avoid their damaging attitudes, and to voice their regret when the evil has happened.

But the feelings are not the only causes of the difference between the manifestations of the regret in the private and public realms. Other sort of causes – the power relations/ domination-submission – does manifest in both realms, but – at least nowadays – in different proportions. In the private one – the power relations are much weaker than in the public sphere.

But what does mean that in the public sphere the power relations are dominant, far much stronger than the relations (of love etc.) compensating the domination-submission? It does mean that the dominant legitimating values are just for the power relations, and not for those compensating them. As a result, the power relations appear as normal, as the only ones putting order in the world and whose disturbance would deserve the most severe elimination. The suffering of people, the alteration of the human anchors[10], are not considered at all, and if so, why to say “I am/we are sorry”?

There are past events and processes which are horrible: in front of the present unanimously shared values. They belong to the history and the present people are not guilt for them. They took place in different countries, and the present diplomatic usages could be but successful if they would include public regrets. Nevertheless, all these facts are not recognised as deserving public regrets. But how to regret them since this fact is only a precedent for the revision of the present national and international policies? How to regret the world wars – how to commemorate just now the aggression of the former Soviet Union in 22 June 1941[11] – since this would show that the present mainstream international relations and world powers wage wars and are preparing new more devastating wars? And how to have a preventive peaceful international policy – agreeing and practicing the public regrets – since this would show that the present internal policies as well wage an aggressive class war against the multitudes from all the countries?

This is the reason of the so diverging political behaviours from the still dominant moral models/prescriptions for individual behaviours. The regrets are preparations for alternative facts towards the old ones: statements and behaviours which emphasise the active (thus, corrective, progressive, changing) character of man, of his logos and conatus. As we know, only the development of this active character brought about human sentiments – trust, love, solidarity, mutual help, daring and creativity – that have constructed the human needs and their environment, as Maslow’s hierarchy shows. But this construction and Maslow’s hierarchy appear as being adverse to the present power relations. From the ancient times, because of the low and insufficient level of productive means, the power relations were functional for the growth of the surplus product and the rise of civilisation. Conversely, for the present science and technology the domination-submission relations are no longer efficient: actually, they do obstruct them. And since the economic reason of the domination-submission relations is ceasing, it results that there is only the political one (the political interests – in the last instance, for the private domination of the world) that is backing their persistence.

One of the instruments of the power relations is just the (very concretely determined) inertia of political behaviours, and a form of this inertia is just the reluctance towards the public regrets. Therefore, to discuss the concept of regret and to deconstruct the mechanism of this reluctance is but a means to oppose this inertia.   And once more philosophy shows itself as a dangerous subversive human creation.

[1] See also Leslie Sohn, “A Defective Capacity to Feel Sorrow: Interferences to the Development of Remorse and Reparation” in Remorse and Reparation, Edited by Murray Cocs, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999, pp. 61-82.

[2] As sometimes the Romans have called Nemesis: Invidia.

[3] They simply consider them as objectionable, even “impossible” (see Ana Bazac, ”L’échelle mineure et l’échelle majeure de l’impossible”, Analele Universității din Craiova. Seria Filosofie, Nr. 35 (1/2015), pp. 167-188).

[4] Also Ana Bazac, O, Tempora…: A Methodological Model to Approach the Crisis”, Annals of the University of Bucharest, 1/2014, pp. 41-58.

[5] See Ana Bazac, ”Person – for Me, and Object – for the Other? How Does Humanism Occur?”, Dialogue and Universalism, Vol. XXV, No. 2/2015, pp. 104-115.

[6] Plato, Republic, 619c (“For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself”).

[7] Alan Thomas, “Remorse and Reparation: A Philosophical Analysis”, in Remorse and Reparation, Edited by Murray Cocs, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999, pp. 127-134.

[8] See Axel Honneth, “Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View”, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values,  Berkeley, University of California, 2005, pp. 91-135 (“perspective of engaged involvement”. P. 110).

[9] Mihai Nadin, ”Antecapere ergo sum: what price knowlwdge?”, in A Faustian Exchange: What Is To Be Human in the Era of Ubiquitous Technology, AI&Society 25th Anniversary Volume, London, Springer, 2012.

[10] See Paul Verhaeghe, What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (2012), Translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle, Melbourne, London, Scribe, 2014.

[11] Jean-Marie Chauvier,  Juin 1941-2016, le 75ème anniversaire de “Barbarossa”. REVISIONS…, 03/06/2016,


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