A Theory of Regret

A Theory of Regret

by Brian Price

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In A Theory of Regret Brian Price contends that regret is better understood as an important political emotion than as a form of weakness. Price shows how regret allows us to see that our convictions are more often the products of our perceptual habits than the authentic signs of moral courage that we more regularly take them to be. Regret teaches us to give up our expectations of what we think should or might occur in the future, and also the idea that what we think we should do will always be the right thing to do. Understood instead as a mode of thoughtfulness, regret helps us to clarify our will in relation to the decisions we make within institutional forms of existence. Considering regret in relation to emancipatory theories of thinking, Price shows how the unconditionally transformative nature of this emotion helps us become more sensitive to contingency and allows us, in turn, to recognize the steps we can take toward changing the institutions that shape our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372394
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/19/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Brian Price is Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Studies and the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, the author of Neither God nor Master: Robert Bresson and Radical Politics, and coeditor of Color, the Film Reader, and On Michael Haneke. He is also a founding coeditor of World Picture.

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What Is Regret?

How many details, how many pieces of evidence, are required for one to know regret? Can one be punctilious in regret? To be punctilious is to act correctly. How careful can I be in my evaluation, especially considering that what is at stake — if I am experiencing regret — is the lack of care I once demonstrated that now has me in an uneasy state of searching? What would lead me to conclude that I am now more capable of seeing what I could not see then? I say to myself what everyone knows already, or could have known, should they be gathering the same details. I can be wrong; I have been wrong: I regret that I am no longer in the right. I regret what is already known of me, what is known of me before I know it of myself. If I regret something, presumably I wish I could have done something otherwise; I wish that I could have done the, or even just that, right thing. But if doing otherwise was an option — if every action implies an otherwise — then how could I have been wrong?

Regret is a problem of recognition as it emerges in relation to opposed wills, which cannot be communicated — which have failed to communicate and now remain in a state of oblique willing that only appears blank, in and as silence. One intends to be punctilious in regret; one hopes that the cause of regret can be proven or refuted. But if signs change — or remain the same in muteness — then counting or matching becomes sheer treachery. One can be exposed as having tried to do so, even as we fail to verify the terms of the regret that we now, however tentatively, feel. To try is already to have made a confession: I should have done that differently. I have been seen, so I might just as well be heard.

Regret is a problem of calculation, especially if we suppose regret to be the mischievous relative of virtue. I can feel regret and not be wrong — or else, I can feel regret and not be evil, since regret implies some relation to virtue. It is just that we do not know how to measure the distance between what we have said or what we have done and what would otherwise leave us in the Good.


This is the problem of regret as Aristotle introduces it in Nicomachean Ethics as a question of virtue — that is, of what lies outside of the realm of virtue. For Aristotle, virtue is of two types: virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought, Aristotle says, is something that does not come naturally. It has to be taught and it has to be learned. We are "completed by habit." We have to build our capacities for virtue, which will become our character, which is also the character of virtue, since it will be possessed by more than one. What this means is that the pathways for some things can be changed in the course of habituation, where other things by nature — by essence — resist. Like the stone: "A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature on one condition into another condition." If the raw matter of the stone in gravity prevents it from tending upward of its own volition — no matter how many times we toss it in the air — then the human, no less composed of matter, is the being capable of changing course on the basis of what can be produced as thought in the act of habituation. Of course, we might have to make the same claim for domesticated animals, for whom acting well is also a result of habituation, of a thought learned by rote repetition. Having acquired the character of virtue, the domesticated animal now — and no less than the human — has the capacity to pursue a more virtuous course. It can, for instance, defecate outside instead of inside, and largely on the basis of another's preference, presumably, rather than by inclination.

In this sense, the distinction on offer here between stone and being — whether man or animal — is obvious enough. But what it does, and rather importantly so, is to locate the question of virtue outside of a metaphysical conception of morality. Virtue, for Aristotle, is something acquired, not necessary. We don't fall to the ground no matter what. Nor do we arrive with, or because of, the virtue of character. And while it might be argued that virtue may, in metaphysical terms, remain indiscernibly present in the Good, it exists as a category for Aristotle precisely because there are things that are — without question and for everyone — wrong. If this is so, then virtue, we will have to say, flourishes in the realm of the not so easily decided. And I would wager that for most of us this is a fairly common understanding of the term. Very few of us, I suspect, find the refusal to kill another human being virtuous. If the decision to not kill meets the criteria of virtue, then the impulse to kill — in almost every encounter — must be appealing to us, in some measure, as a possibility, as something that could be enjoyed, understood by myself and by others as acceptable even though I now find myself resisting the impulse. And if acceptable, it is merely less than absolutely right; if unacceptable, it is absolutely wrong.

Aristotle made a list of acts and emotional states that he considered simply wrong, that admit of neither appeal nor complication. One would expect virtue, by contrast, to be equally determined. And yet, for Aristotle, virtue is not a necessary condition, as are the behaviors defined as wrong. Virtue is contingent, even though virtue of character once achieved will come to appear and behave as a necessary state and will do so by way of the work of moderation that everyone who moves from virtue in thought to virtue in character inevitably embraces in the process of habituation; this process involves finding a state of moderation — a mean between total excess and self-mortification. Aristotle's list, then, includes only those acts and affects that admit of no mean.

For the names of some automatically include baseness — for instance, spite, shamelessness, envy, and adultery, theft, murder, among actions. For all of these and similar things are called by these names because they themselves, not their excesses or deficiencies, are base. Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error. We cannot do them well or not well — by committing adultery, for instance, with the right woman at the right time in the right way. On the contrary, it is true without qualification that to do any of them is to be in error.

If doing a base thing — even if we do it with great style, as Aristotle perhaps accidentally suggests that we can (the right woman at the right time in the right way) — is true error without qualification, then we are left with an odd problem. Being correct is not the same thing as being virtuous, since having the character of virtue entails habituating ourselves to a mean somewhere between excessive vice and total self-mortification. If our participation in one of the base activities described by Aristotle were understood in relation to virtue, then we would be able cheat just a little bit (more than a glance, less than intercourse) so long as we don't berate ourselves for it too strongly. But for Aristotle, such actions and affects do not admit of variation or a mean. And yet one would assume that doing any of these things or experiencing any of these emotions — murder, adultery, envy, shamelessness — would produce absolute regret. But this is not the case for Aristotle, since virtue is always a practice of moderation and the establishment of a mean. Regret, then, can only follow something related to virtue, which is not a necessary condition. What this means is that regret cannot follow from something wrong, that is, from a failure to remain on the right side of an absolute. Regret, for Aristotle, only follows from a failure to achieve moderation, which is understood to be a virtuous, if habituated, act.

This leads me to wonder about the relation between virtue and virtuosity. The virtuoso has special skills, is in possession of more than mere mastery. The virtuosic performer, even though he is more than mere master of the medium in which he works, nevertheless excels within the realm of technique. Virtuosity is an achievement of the possible, since the possible is determined by the outer limits of a medium or a technical form, which was theretofore unforeseen even if always present as an option and is rarely achievable even once the conditions of possibility are exposed in the moment of virtuosic performance. To be virtuous, in the Aristotelian sense, is to hold back; it is to do less than the virtuoso and more than the idler. And yet one finds in Aristotle's list of the absolutely wrong — and thus the always-outside-of-virtue — an experience of virtuosity: the right woman at the right time in the right way. Perhaps we will have to say, following Aristotle, that virtuosity thrives in the realm of the wrong. One can do something with great aplomb — better than others before you, even though the options you see, the loopholes you find, have always been seeable — and simply be wrong and as inimitable, as such, as the virtuoso.

Consider, for instance, the example of Herman Cain, a former aspirant to the Republican presidential candidacy in 2012, who was accused in the middle of his campaign of carrying on a thirteen-year-long affair (a virtuosic act that exceeded its limits) with a woman in Georgia — Ginger White — who said of the affair, "It wasn't complicated. I was aware that he was married. And I was also aware I was involved in a very inappropriate situation, relationship." In other words, she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. But if wrong, then she could — at least in Aristotle's terms — experience no regret. For Cain, by contrast, regret will not necessarily follow from the affair itself but from its exposure, which forces those signs to be understood outside of the context that made them possible as wrong and thus beyond, or perhaps it is better to say before, regret. The question for Cain is not whether what he did was wrong, but how the exposure of that wrong is to be understood in relation to his character. Now that the signs have migrated and have no necessary and animating limit, can he move from virtue of thought (from a recognition of the mean to be reached) to virtue of character, where that mean will become habituated as virtue? To do so is no simple task, since what such a move requires is the establishment of a mean constituted by non-necessary states and contingent signs; one has to move from a virtuosic performance in the realm of the all-too-knowable (because wrong) to a realm beyond the possible. Regret, then, will follow from the management (and thus from the possible mismanagement) of signs — both what I display to others and what I see, in turn, in the faces and discourses of others, knowing all the while that those signs are, in no sense, grounded, even if sense is what we rightly seek in them.

But before we go further into the question of the display of signs, we should know what actually constitutes virtue for Aristotle. Which actions and affects, in other words, admit of a mean, precisely because they are not absolute? Aristotle suggests a few, all of which are identified by the two related yet opposed actions or affects, all of which demand an experience of moderation that defines virtue in each case: pleasure and pain (interestingly, to be completely incapable of pleasure, according to Aristotle, is to be insensible — that is, incapable of sense), generosity and ungenerosity (where money is concerned), honor and dishonor. Where anger is considered, Aristotle makes a distinction between an irascible and an inirascible person. And where truth is concerned, we are meant to locate ourselves between self-deprecation and boastfulness: "In truth-telling, then, let us call the intermediate person truthful, and the mean truthfulness; pretense that overstates will be boastfulness, and the person who has it boastful; pretense that understates will be self-deprecation, and the person who has it self-deprecating." One way of reading this proposal is to suggest that truth is always present, with or without the achievement of virtue. Seen thus, to be boastful is to obscure what nevertheless remains there amid the excess in any claim that may obscure it, however partially. Self-deprecation, by contrast, minimizes a truth that should be more properly exposed. Yet, since virtue is only ever a question of our response to non-necessary actions and affects, we are left, potentially, with a much more interesting prospect: namely, the idea that truthfulness does not exist outside of the experience of a mean, which will in any case be very difficult to agree upon. How will we find a mean if the set, by which any mean can be derived, is itself not entirely closed or even closable? We could, of course, imagine a contingent totality that makes signification possible, but how would one begin to quantify — even if only for the sake of a contingent formation — the distance between boastfulness and self-deprecation? What would a three mean? Would a seven, in turn, imply a tendency to boast but with the appearance of at least a slight inclination toward truthfulness? We are already doing more than numbers must when we begin to describe things this way.


Aristotle's solution to the problem was not to introduce the problem of data within a system of measurement, as I have — i.e., the idea that what we need to measure is immeasurable because it is ungrounded — but to introduce a distinction between nonvoluntary and involuntaryrelations, as it regards the achievement of virtue, or the experience of regret that follows from our inability to realize the mean. What concerns Aristotle at this juncture is the status of ignorance with respect to the will. How, in other words, can we deem an action to be lacking in virtue if the agent does not understand what is at stake?

Everything caused by ignorance is nonvoluntary, but what is involuntary also causes pain and regret. For if someone's action was caused by ignorance, but he now has no objection to the action, he has done it neither willingly, since he did not know what it was, nor unwillingly, since he now feels no pain. Hence, among those who act because of ignorance, the agent who now regrets his action seems to be unwilling, but the agent with no regrets may be called nonwilling, since he is another case — for since he is different, it is better if he has his own special name.

"His own special name," it should be emphasized, is ignorance. If, in Aristotle's terms, I feel no regret about a particular action, then that action cannot be linked to a knowing use of my will. Whatever it is that I did, I did without the knowledge or information that I would have needed in order to intend to do whatever it is that I have done. Thus, whatever occurred was going to occur with or without my knowing, even if I exercise some degree of agency — if, that is, agency can be separated from the will. By contrast, if I now experience regret, at least in Aristotle's terms, I do so because I am aware that in the face of what occurred I was unwilling. Hence, it is in voluntary. If I was unwilling, then I was not in total ignorance of the potential causes of what occurred, nor was I ignorant of potential responses, each of which might blunt the cause of the event that now has me in a state of regret. An in voluntary action is a failure of virtue precisely because I refuse to exercise my will in the achievement of a mean. If I saw that it was possible — and indeed preferable — to do otherwise and nevertheless refused to act, then I am likely to experience regret. And surely regret, in this instance, will have the salutary effect of making me more careful in the face of signs and decisions to come.

Likewise, Aristotle's distinction between nonvoluntary and involuntary relations makes clear that regret can only be experienced in a situation where we are capable expressing our will, which we can only do if we are not in ignorance, that is, if we have before us information — signs that indicate possible causes and that can be described as possible because they are not necessary. These signs can be made to be otherwise if we see them as such and then redirect them. A nonvoluntary action, by contrast, implies that we could not have seen what was going to occur, nor do anything to prevent it, no matter what we do or do not do. In such cases, we might be sad about what has occurred, but our sadness can only imply sympathy or empathy, since regret implies a refusal of the will that now merits blame. In other words, a nonvoluntary act, at least in Aristotle's terms, might yield an emotional response to what occurred, but whatever those emotions might be, they cannot contribute to virtue, to a better way of acting in a situation that we have experienced once before.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction  1
1. What is Regret?  31
The Habit of Virtue  32
Nonvoluntary and Involuntary Relations  36
Stupidity and Akrasia  42
When to Speak?  35
2. Impossible Advice  60
The Postman Always Rings Twice  61
Possible Advice  71
The Gift of Advice  82
Economy, Economics  90
Sameness and Trust  93
3. The Problem of Withdrawal  103
The Trouble with Agonism  106
Keeping Up Appearances  110
Appearance and Withdrawal  117
Hypocristy and Regret  127
Afterthoughts  133
Notes  141
Bibliography  155
Index  161

What People are Saying About This

Rey Chow

“Drawing on discourses of philosophy, cinema, literature, institutions, and bureaucracies, Brian Price has crafted an original thesis about regret as an affective imprint of thought. Against the constraint imposed by the imperative to act without remorse, he painstakingly unpacks regret’s characteristic shifts and pauses, identifying in them a transformative potential that restores thought to the openness of contingency and freedom.”

Elegy for Theory - D. N. Rodowick

“Brian Price brings forth his deep and surprising insights on the relation of ethics to epistemology with clarity, depth, and humor. Thinking of regret as a modality of moral reasoning, Price shakes up our self-assurance and self-satisfaction with our thoughts and our mode of existence. A Theory of Regret is a compelling and provocative work that will stimulate debate in a variety of domains, including political theory, moral philosophy, and film theory.”

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