Can one justifiably believe that, on the one hand, agent-regret is a warranted response to certain situations, but, on the other hand, survivor’s guilt isn’t? I do not think so. I think survivor’s guilt and agent-regret stand or fall together. Should they stand, or should they fall? I think they should fall. Below I outline why I think that someone who goes in for agent-regret must also go in for survivor’s guilt. Then I give some reasons to be wary of both. Because space is limited, I cannot fully defend all (or, really, any) of my claims here. But, I hope the picture I paint is at least coherent, and perhaps attractive.
First, I am going to introduce an unfortunately confusing terminological modification. I am going to rename ‘survivor’s guilt’ to ‘survivor’s regret.’ Survivor’s regret (formerly survivor’s guilt) is, as Thaddeus Metz puts it, “feeling bad about oneself for one’s associates having died, for not having died along with them, or for not having saved them, even though one did no culpable wrong in contributing to their deaths.” It is “the feeling of guilt (or something like it) despite not being guilty” (Metz 2018). I use this new label ‘survivor’s regret’ so that we can use the old label ‘survivor’s guilt’ to refer to the similar feeling of guilt when one is in fact guilty. So for instance someone might feel survivor’s regret if they were the only survivor of a shipwreck which was not their fault, and they might feel survivor’s guilt if they were the only survivor of a shipwreck they caused.
With this new terminology, survivor’s regret lines up to some extent with agent-regret, which is a negative feeling towards a situation one was causally involved in but for which one was not morally responsible, and survivor’s guilt lines up with guilt, which is a negative feeling towards a situation for which one was morally responsible.
Survivor’s guilt and guilt quite clearly stand or fall together: survivor’s guilt is merely a subset of guilt. Do survivor’s regret and agent-regret stand or fall together? Perhaps the former is a subset of the latter. Nancy Sherman, although she does not like the term ‘agent-regret,’ more or less thinks that survivor’s regret is a subset of agent-regret, just like survivor’s guilt is a subset of guilt (Sherman 2011). Whether or not survivor’s regret is a subset of agent-regret, they share similarities. Both require us to accept moral luck in order to think that they are appropriate. Both have nearby concepts (survivor’s guilt and guilt) which imply moral responsibility, whereas survivor’s regret and agent-regret rule out moral responsibility. Both are widespread emotional responses to traumatic situations. I think there are no arguments which show that agent-regret is reasonable but that survivor’s regret is not: either these arguments fail to successfully defend agent-regret, or they defend it at the cost of defending survivor’s regret too. To take one example, Jordan MacKenzie argues that we need agent-regret so that we can have a ‘bad guy’ to blame in tragic cases (2017, 109-110). But cases of potential survivor’s regret are just as tragic as any cases calling for agent-regret, and hence just as in need of a ‘bad guy.’
If you object that branding a survivor a ‘bad guy’ is perverse, then you are primed to agree with the second half of my argument, which is that agent-regret and survivor’s regret ought to be discarded. Any issues one might have with survivor’s regret are equally issues one might have with agent-regret. Like survivor’s regret, agent-regret results in someone who did nothing wrong feeling quite bad about themselves. Like survivor’s regret, agent-regret piles these bad feelings on someone who is already in an unfortunate situation. Like survivor’s regret, agent-regret sits ill with the approaches to responsibility taken by classic theories like Kantian ethics (which reserves opprobrium for someone whose will had some defect) or consequentialism (which recommends negative feelings only insofar as these have good consequences). And because they stand or fall together, if we want to get rid of survivor’s regret, we also have to get rid of agent-regret.
Moreover, it looks like we want to get rid of survivor’s regret. One key difference between agent-regret and survivor’s regret is that we tend to have negative feelings towards someone who manages to shrug off agent-regret without much trouble, whereas we tend to encourage someone’s efforts to shrug off survivor’s regret. This demonstrates that far from being deeply embedded in the necessary normative structure of the universe, both agent-regret and survivor’s regret are society-contingent ways of reacting to the world. Whether someone is inclined to feel these ways, and what society does in response to these sorts of feelings, are up to us. We could have a society that mandates survivor’s regret as much as we currently mandate agent-regret, but we could also go in the other direction. We could have a society that tries to help people get over agent-regret, or simply not feel it in the first place, just like we might try to get someone not to feel survivor’s regret. Many sophisticated recent defenses of agent-regret, like Jordan MacKenzie’s or David Sussman’s (2018), already accept that it is constituted by societal norms which in principle could be foregone. I am suggesting we forego these norms. Just like we try to help people get over survivor’s regret as soon as possible, and we would feel happy for someone who managed to avoid it altogether, we should work towards a society which aims to help people get over agent-regret as soon as possible, and which feels happy for someone who manages to avoid it altogether.
*****[Thanks to Justin D’Arms and Oded Na’aman for discussion of this topic.]
MacKenzie, Jordan. 2017. “Agent-Regret and the Social Practice of Moral Luck.” Res Philosophica 94 (1): 95-117.
Metz, Thaddeus. 2018. “Survivor’s Guilt.” In Hugh LaFollette (ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Sherman, Nancy. 2011. “The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt.” Psychology Today. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/stoic-warrior/201107/the-moral-logic- survivor-guilt>
Sussman, David. 2018. “Is Agent-Regret Rational?” Ethics 128 (4): 788-808.