Regret, Luck, and Identity

In the previous chapter I examined our attitudes to past misdeeds in light of a meaning-oriented, constructive conception of self, and in terms of the revisionary practices that this conception helps explain. But though revising the past is often an option, it is not the only one. Whether or not the option of revision is open to them, people may cling to the past while disapproving of it. Regret marks such an attitude. Like some of the revisionary practices, most particularly repentance, regret involves a critical stance toward the past. But regret is not revisionary; it is more passive than that. Regret consists in a painful hopelessness in the face of one’s past actions and their aftermath, and in this regard resembles despair. In contrast to revising the past, to regret is to dwell in the past’s dark shadow. It may be of some comfort, therefore, to realize that not everything about one’s past can be regretted. Regret is subject to identity-based limitations similar to those discussed at the end of the previous chapter in regard to revisions. The connection between identity and regret is of interest in its own right. But this connection also bears on another notion that has attracted considerable philosophical attention, moral luck. I argue that the same identity-based considerations that inhibit regret also delimit the role luck plays in our moral life. The key in both cases, of regret and of luck, lies in the same constructive conception of self that I’ve been discussing thus far. If who we are depends on what we do, some of our actions are immune to regret as well as to luck. The aim of this chapter is to explain why. In linking the notions of regret and luck I follow the lead of Professor Bernard Williams, whose well-known essay, entitled “Moral Luck,” helped put this topic on the philosophical agenda. However, Williams’s discussion raises some puzzles. Dealing with these puzzles will help navigate us toward an improved account.

Williams’s essay is not only the eponymous essay in one of his books,1 but it also inspired the book’s fetching cover, a rather striking painting by Paul Gauguin[1] [2]—appropriately, since the essay’s central example is Gauguin’s decision to start in remote Tahiti a new life, devoted to painting, in derogation of the pressing human claims made on him by his family and other people he left behind. According to Williams, our retrospective assessment of Gauguin’s decision crucially depends on its outcome, on whether he succeeded or failed. Williams’s main claim is that “in such a situation the only thing that will justify [Gauguin’s] choice will be his success itself.”[3] Since many fortuities bear on whether Gauguin’s venture succeeds, the justification is a matter of luck. In the first section I examine Williams’s treatment of the Gauguin example, and point out some difficulties that arise. In the following two sections I suggest an alternative account of Gauguin’s case, an account that, I believe, better upholds Williams’s main insights, specifically his central claim regarding the connection between Gauguin’s success and the possibility of regret. In the final section I draw from my own account implications that depart from some of Williams’s conclusions.

whom runs over a pedestrian who happens to cross the street at the critical moment. Why then focus on such a recherche example as Gauguin’s?

Gauguin’s case does in fact serve Williams’s goals well, but to see this we must be clearer about what these goals are.4 As I see it, they are both methodological and substantive. The methodological purpose served by the example concerns Williams’s insistence on providing an argument for the role of luck, instead of resting his case on a direct appeal to our intuitions. The stock example of the two drivers that I have just mentioned is a case in point. The discussion of such cases often amounts or rather escalates to not much more than a contest of intuitions, with some writers affirming and others denying the relevance of fortuity to culpability. Unlike these cases, Gauguin’s more complicated example provides Williams with the context for an argument designed to show why luck plays an indispensable role. The substantive point is that Williams is not primarily interested in the relevance of luck to moral judgments, but rather in a broader question regarding the role of luck in human life. He alludes at the start of the paper to “a strain of philosophical thought which identifies the end of life as happiness, happiness as reflective tranquility, and tranquility as the product of self-sufficiency,” and to “certain doctrines of classical antiquity” that promised, at least to the sage, an immunity to luck.5 According to Williams, Kant’s moral theory is a modern variation on this ancient aspiration to extricate central aspects of ourselves and our lives from the vagaries of luck. The challenge that Kant’s moral theory purports but fails to meet is accordingly twofold: not only to display some conception of morality as luck-free, but to do so with respect to a conception of morality that occupies a central or superior position within the self and within human life. Only such a conception of morality can satisfy the ancient yearning to eliminate luck from central, not just peripheral, aspects of ourselves. Gauguin is in this respect an apt example not because his is a particularly clear case of moral luck, but rather because luck seems to play such a decisive role in his life. This feature of Gauguin’s case helps bring out the tension between the two desiderata that Kant’s moral theory tries to meet. We must either view the justification afforded to Gauguin by his success as a moral justification, and thus acknowledge the existence of moral luck, or else we must accept that Gauguin is inescapably dominated by nonmoral factors that compete with morality and may displace or overcome it, thereby relegating morality, free of luck as it may be, to a more peripheral position than we ordinarily ascribe to it.

It is, however, easier to state Williams’s goals than it is to fill in the steps he takes to meet them. In broad outline the argument is clear enough. Gauguin faces a dilemma as to whether or not to desert his family in order to pursue his artistic aspirations. As Williams depicts him, Gauguin is fully aware of the conflicting considerations as well as the uncertainty of the outcome. When Gauguin decides to go to Tahiti, he accordingly takes the risk that his painterly ambitions may fail. Williams is not primarily concerned with the decision itself, however, but rather with its retrospective evaluation by Gauguin. This perspective, according to Williams, naturally brings in the notion of regret. Ordinarily, a bad decision is a pro tanto ground for agent-regret. The appropriateness of regret can accordingly serve as a test of the badness of a decision. When we apply this test to Gauguin, we find that whereas failure “must leave him with the most basic regrets,” regret would be incoherent in the case of success.6 Whether Gauguin fails or succeeds, however, and hence whether or not he comes to regret his decision, is in part a matter of luck, and to that extent the retrospective justifiability of the decision is also a matter of luck.

As this summary makes clear, the crucial step in the argument is the appeal to regret and the claim that Gauguin’s successful execution of his artistic project prevents it. But when we look closely at this claim, some troubling questions arise. One question concerns the very appeal to regret: using regret as a measure of the justifiability of the decision seems either perverse or otiose. In order to tell whether regret is appropriate it appears that we must first be able to assess the decision as regrettable— that is to say, as in some respect bad or undesirable. Trying to derive the existence or absence of justification from the appropriateness of subsequent regret seems to have things backward. An even more troubling question concerns the argument’s central claim: why can’t a successful Gauguin coherently regret his decision to become an artist? A seemingly obvious answer is that Gauguin values being an artist so highly that he cannot in good conscience wish that he had not become one; and for this reason he cannot regret the decision that led to this career either. But although some of the things that Williams says lend support to this simple answer, it is not really convincing, and stands at odds to other claims. Three difficulties in particular arise.

First, to say that Gauguin would not regret his decision simply because of the importance he attaches to his artistic success is to beg the question how his interest, even a dominant one, ought to compare and compete with those of others whom he has injured or wronged. Moreover, we know from the start that Gauguin was willing to sacrifice the interests of others even in the face of the mere possibility of success; why, then, should there be any expectation that he would come to regret the decision when success did strike? What could the impossibility of regret possibly teach us that we did not know already at the time of the decision? Indeed, Williams’s main point is not that a successful Gauguin is unlikely or disinclined to regret his decision, but that he cannot coherently do so; the simple interpretation we’re considering sheds no light on this stronger claim. The second difficulty is closely related. Williams insists that there is a discontinuity between the ex ante standpoint of decision and the ex post standpoint of evaluation, a discontinuity that makes it impossible for the deciding Gauguin to fully anticipate the position from which the assessment will be made. Since luck bears some of the responsibility for Gauguin’s eventual success, it also must bear some of the responsibility for a genuine shift in the normative state of affairs. But no discontinuity between the two temporal standpoints and no shift in the normative situation seem to occur if success consists of nothing more than the realization of Gauguin’s earlier hopes. When making the decision, Gauguin can anticipate the two scenarios of success and failure, as well as the great importance that artistic success would have in his life; all the factors that bear on the justifiability of the decision thus seem to be present at the time of the decision. Finally, on the simple interpretation, the distinguishing mark of Gauguin’s decision is its great importance in his life: the value he assigns to it outweighs the harm to others he has caused. But importance is a matter of degree, whereas Williams insists that Gauguin’s decision is qualitatively and not just quantitatively distinct from decisions we are able to regret. What precisely is the distinguishing mark of Gauguin’s decision that sets it apart from ordinary ones?

These difficulties present a challenge. We need an account (1) that points out what is distinctive about Gauguin’s decision, (2) so as to explain the gap between the prospective standpoint of decision and the retrospective standpoint of assessment, (3) as well as the special significance that attaches to the possibility of regret, (4) rendering regret in the case of success not just unlikely, but incoherent.

  • [2] The fact that Williams has put the notion of moral luck on the philosophi
  • [3] cal agenda creates a potentially distorting lens through which to see hispaper. One is inclined to seek in the paper, in vain as it turns out, a defense or a demonstration of moral luck. Indeed, seen as a vehicle for demonstrating moral luck, the Gauguin example, around which Williams’sargument revolves, would be a curious choice. Much more common examples abound of what would ordinarily strike one as the role of luckin moral judgment, such as the proverbial negligent drivers, only one of
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