How Regret Influences our Moral Calculations and Actions

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In the exercise of normative ethics frameworks like rule or act utilitarianism, the common goal is always a matter of logically, and perhaps objectively, trying to arrive at morally correct choices. Human beings are not, however, fully objective and rational beings. Emotions and subjective orientations invariably motivate moral thinking, decision making, and action. For many people, past regrets from actions or anticipated regrets for future actions hold powerful sway and influence in the moral/ethical decision-making process. It is, therefore, a philosophically and morally worthy question to ask: do past regrets from actions or anticipated regrets for future actions hinder or help one’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice?

Definitions, Theoretical Framework, and Assumptions

Morality according to Utilitarian Ethics/Philosophy

The nature of morality, in the most fundamental of terms, is based on principles, by rule or by action, of right and wrong with the recognition of oneself as a moral agent. With utilitarian morality, ethics extends to acts and/or rules that are intended to produce happiness for the greatest number of people regardless of one’s own idea of equity, equality or reciprocity. The idea of advancing the greatest happiness for the greatest number is Bentham’s expression of altruism. It will fundamentally be demonstrated in this paper that altruism, or the absence, thereof, holds powerful sway in helping or hindering one’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Understanding Moral Motivation

Addressing the question of whether past and/or anticipated regret from actions hinders or helps the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice requires, at least at a minimum, a basic understanding of moral motivation. Fundamentally, there are three commonsense sources of moral motivation – namely, the head, the heart, or one’s moral affiliations. Stated in more scholarly terms, the impetus behind moral theory can be moral principles or cognitively based standards of right and wrong, empathic reactions to another's feelings, or identification with a moral community such as family, heroes, and other moral groups (Snyder and Lopez 500). It is, herein, posited that the altruistic nature of the utilitarian principle of acting on the greatest good to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number was Jeremy Bentham’s model for guiding people to the right moral decision and action. Implicit to Bentham’s work is the requirement of utilizing intelligence to assess and regulate emotions in order to appropriately arrive at the correct decision consistently and efficiently. For Bentham, in other words, the cost/benefit calculations involved in arriving at morally correct decisions should never be hindered by non-altruistic feelings of past or anticipated regret. Summarily, an emotionally intelligent individual is motivated in his or her moral calculations and decisions by Bentham’s altruism.

In moral motivation, the principles, or moral code within oneself, require the moral agent to behave in a way that does not hinge on the approval or disapproval of any authority. If empathy is absent, a moral code can be sustained by one's upward counterfactual imaginings of living up to a more desirable concept of self as a moral role model. The right moral calculation can still be applied when facing dilemmas of past or anticipated regret. However, the basic system of moral motivation and emotional intelligence will always find the moral agent aligned with at least one moral factor to invoke. Finally, moral motivation and the adoption of a positive moral identity occur as a result of an inherent belief that doing so will lead to acceptance by others and will “produce desirable outcomes through personal experience and observation” (Snyder and Lopez 503).

Understanding Regret

Regret is fundamentally considered to be a negative cognitive/emotional mental construct that involves feeling responsible for bad or unfortunate outcomes. It may also involve feeling the loss or sorrow about what might have been or wishing a previous choice could be undone. As painful as regret is, for some people, it can be a helpful and motivating emotion. In fact, the pain of regret can refocus one to “take corrective action or pursue a new path” (Greenberg). Regret primarily stems from counterfactual thinking. In other words, the easier it is to imagine a different outcome, the more likely one will regret the lost opportunity. Thus, regret is a person’s way of looking at the past or peering into the future to look at choices as a signal that an action may lead to negative and/or positive consequences (Greenberg).

Understanding Counterfactuals

Counterfactuals are useful, realistic, disciplined and fact-filled reflexive imaginings or thoughts that are usually effortlessly efficient in their projection of alternative outcomes. It is a normal functioning of the human brain to imagine or think about certain scenarios in decision making. Therefore, counterfactuals are emotionally motivating mental constructs that instantaneously work to help a person deal with many different types of situations. Upward counterfactuals can create visions that make a person feel bad. Upward, in this sense, means that a mental comparison is made between a factual situation and something imagined that could be a better, more desirable or preferable outcome (Roese 16). Regret, for instance, is upward counterfactual when one thinks of what is desired or preferred while simultaneously knowing that the opportunity to achieve such ends has actually been lost. The faint hope of yet fulfilling the desired outcome persists, nonetheless. Downward counterfactuals are thoughts about looking down on things that are undesirable or what might be worse than they are. For example, regret can be a downward counterfactual because one can imagine something happening that is far worse than what has already happened. Counterfactual thinking occurs even though the agent knows that the worst-case scenario will not and/or cannot happen. Thus, either upward or downward counterfactuals can use regret to either help or hinder the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice (Roese 16).

Understanding Emotional Intelligence

As a matter of extension, this report assumes the psychological theory of emotional intelligence with at least three characteristics that include: self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy. Each characteristic aids in the moral motivation of a person.

Self-awareness: refers to the ability to recognize, accurately self-assess and understand one’s emotional state of mind in any given moment by knowing oneself. Familiarity with one’s own moral character or application of one’s own moral code exemplifies this trait of an emotionally intelligent person. Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage one’s positive state of mind when any potentially disturbing reflexive thought or emotion is encountered. A morally motivated person with emotional intelligence exemplifies trustworthiness, integrity, and the emotional flexibility to adapt and adjust to whatever circumstances occur with an even-keeled demeanor. Empathy refers to the ability to understand others by recognizing generalizable meanings of their emotions, invoking compassion by using sensitivity in relationships with others while providing a leading-edge emotion that influences others to feel positive and proactive. (Salovey, Brackett and Mayer 310)

For the emotionally intelligent morally motivated agent, the power of past or anticipated regret is harnessed for its motivational power to serve something other than self-interest. Emotional intelligence is the impetus for serving the greater good, i.e., Bentham’s altruism. For the emotionally unintelligent, morally challenged agent, regret triggers emotions of fear, lack of control, victimization and self-centered actions - all of which, in a deceptive manner, embody egoism and tend to hinder the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Response to the Research Question

In providing a formalized response to the research question (i.e., do past or anticipated regrets hinder or help in one’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice?), the short answer is: yes. Regret can both help and hinder one’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. Given all the definitions, frameworks and assumptions outlined in previous sections, it can now be understood that the emotionally intelligent moral agent can use regret to help with the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice as an upward counterfactual thought. Additionally, the emotionally unintelligent, morally challenged agent can use regret to hinder his/her ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice, even when using a downward counterfactual imagining involves justifying one’s choice. In order to make moral calculations efficiently and consistently, one must be morally motivated by self-regulated emotions or emotional intelligence, exhibit empathy for others; and use counterfactual and reflexive imaginings to identify with moral exemplars.

Applying the Framework to the Research Answer

This section of the current discussion utilizes a case study (i.e., hypothetical scenarios) to demonstrate and explain how and why regret can both help and/or hinder the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Just the Facts

A drunken man is driving his car down an unspecified speed zone. As he comes around a corner into the only residential neighborhood without speed bumps, he hits a young boy riding a bicycle. Tires screech, a crash, and a scream are heard throughout the neighborhood. All of the stakeholders in the community have the opportunity to do something.

How Regret Plays a Role

Regret hinders the Driver

The driver uses regret twofold. Firstly, counterfactual thinking would invoke regret over his decision to get drunk and get behind the wheel instead of using a designated driver. Further, his anticipated regret of getting arrested and prosecuted for drunk driving counterfactually predicts that he will lose everything he values, including his freedom. And finally, regret is felt about his impaired physical responses and the influence of alcohol that caused him to not observe the speed limit on the residential street. Thus, regret likely hindered his ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Utilitarian Assessment. When regret hinders moral correctness in decision making, particularly when applying the utilitarian principle, results can be devastating for all stakeholders. An autonomic neural flight-or-fight mechanism is triggered when negative counterfactual imaginings suggest that the driver should think of himself, value his potential losses more than those of anyone else, and flee the scene, not offering aid to the injured boy. This is a major morally motivated failure. First, his empathy was non-existent. Second, his emotional intelligence to be self-aware enough to self-regulate his emotions toward the greater good (the boy) was non-existent. Further, a moral exemplar is obviously non-existent in the driver’s life. He was not motivated morally, but, rather, egoistically. Thus, regret hindered his ability to calculate and act according to the morally correct choice.

Outcome of hindering regret. In this illustration, the driver flees the scene. The boy succumbs to his injuries and dies. The boy’s parents and family members have now lost someone they loved dearly. They will surely be grieving over the boy’s death for months and even years to come. Even further, the boy’s friends and teachers, as well as other members of the community, will be deeply saddened by the tragic news. Summarily, nothing about the driver’s decision to flee the accident scene served the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The driver was obviously not morally motivated and made the wrong moral choice not only for the boy but for himself as well. His self-esteem as a result of his actions can certainly be affected in a negative way (Greenberg).

Regret hinders the Neighbors

The neighbors who heard the accident regretted not authorizing speed bumps on their street when they had the chance in the last city council meeting to do so. Knowing that their street favors speeding due to the lack of speed limit signs and the prevalence of drivers unfamiliar with the neighborhood, they experienced regret about those past decisions to ignore the potential dangers to the children on their street. Furthermore, the neighbors are financially diverse as some people rent their homes while others own their homes. Property taxes to install a speed bump would require the city to charge residents an additional $200 per year for every homeowner and $15 more per month for renters. Regretting their financial condition as not being conducive to paying higher property taxes took its toll on their moral calculations. Regret, in other words, hindered the neighbors’ ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Utilitarian Assessment. When counterfactual imaginings suggest that the neighbors turn up the volume on their televisions, go about their business and not get involved, albeit hoping for the best; it can have tragic results. First of all, the street would have been safer with speed bumps installed. Speed bumps would have even slowed down drunk drivers. Yet, speed bumps would have cost each resident $200 a year each in property taxes – something that most residents did not want to pay. Collectively, the non-altruistic decision of the neighbors to resist safety measures in lieu of outrage over a temporary financial setback shows poor empathy and non-existent emotional intelligence to regulate their emotions for the greater good. Also, the moral community in that neighborhood was non-existent. Therefore, it can be concluded that the neighbors were motivated egoistically and not morally with regret hindering their decision to come to do the right thing.

Outcome of hindering regret. In choosing to not get involved, the neighbors exacerbated the accident. The neighbors’ decision to not get involved when they heard the screeching tires, the crash, and the scream did not serve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Moreover, the neighborhood was on the front page of the news with the story about how they squandered a chance to make their streets safer. The fact that they did nothing and the boy died created a sense of collective guilt in the social dynamic of the neighborhood. This community regret could very well continue to hinder their collective ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. Summarily, a lot of people are grieving and unhappy because regret of past decisions usurped their moral motivation and emotional intelligence.

Regret helps the Driver

Regret can help a person if any of the three moral motivation factors exist within him/her. Even with impaired judgment, it could still help the driver behave consistently and efficiently in a moral way in any situation. The morally motivated driver may decide to not drink if he is under the influence of alcohol and/or drunk. As such, the projected regret of hurting someone while driving drunk would be helpful in calculating his sobriety and traveling options. Thus, in this case, regret could help the driver’s ability to calculate and make a morally correct decision.

Utilitarian Assessment. If the driver had demonstrated emotional intelligence in the form of empathy for others (that is, recognizing that driving under the influence places the lives of others at risk), regret would have helped his ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. An identity with a moral exemplar would also make regret helpful. The driver’s counterfactual thinking could have helped him imagine facing his own family with news of a drunk-driving conviction and manslaughter conviction. This line of reasoning would have helped dissuade him from following through with getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol. The greatest happiness for the greatest number would easily be calculated with morally motivated emotional intelligence. And thus, the driver would choose to do the right thing.

Outcome of helping regret. In another scenario that demonstrates how regret can help in the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice, the driver decides to drive home sober. Due to the fact that the street around the corner has no speed bumps, he now has a moral motivation to drive carefully down the residential neighborhood. Even if the boy on the bicycle still swerves in front of the oncoming vehicle and gets hit, the morally motivated driver with emotional intelligence will choose to provide immediate aid to the boy. Thus, regret has helped in the driver’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Regret helps the Neighbors

If the neighbors had been morally motivated by emotional intelligence, they would have used regret to consider the importance of the safety of the children and residents on the local streets. Thereby, they would have chosen to have the speed bumps installed. Emotional intelligence could have also lessened the neighbor’s resistance to the $200 a year property tax proposal. They would have realized, in other words, that the potential loss of life in an accident is too high a price to pay. As such, regret would have helped the neighbors’ ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Utilitarian Assessment. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is an easy calculation when applying moral motivation and emotional intelligence. The neighbors would know that inaction to make the street safer could result in potential harm to someone they care love. Furthermore, if the neighbors had greater emotional intelligence, they would provide aid in any situation like a boy getting hit by a car.

Outcome of helping regret. If the neighbors applied their moral motivations and emotional intelligence by approving the tax increase and installation of speed bumps, the boy still could have been hit by the car. Yet, it is possible that serious injuries could be avoided because cars must travel slower through the neighborhoods. Also, the children could have been warned to watch for cars. Thus, anticipated regret in the community would have helped in the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

Discussion of Findings

As findings indicate, an upward or downward counterfactual emotion like regret is helpful in the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice if the morally motivated, emotionally intelligent agent is self-aware, self-regulated to be less impulsive, and is able to show empathy for others. The emotionally intelligent moral agent is able to consider his or her decisions and actions in light of the greater good, i.e., altruistically. On the other hand, for the emotionally unintelligent and morally challenged person, regret hinders the ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. For such a person, decisions and actions are not governed by head, heart or moral affiliation (Snyder and Lopez 500). The emotionally unintelligent, morally challenged agent is motivated by what he or she thinks, or imagines, serves his or her own good. For such a moral agent, decisions and actions are mostly egoistically motivated by fear for self-preservation, not the greater good.

As a matter of further explanation of findings, regret has been conceptualized as a moral emotion and part of the reflexive imagination that motivates the moral agent. Regret is further conceptualized as the brain’s way of telling the agent to take another look at the choice available, perhaps signaling that particular decisions and/or actions may (or may not) lead to negative consequences. The emotionally intelligent moral agent has the capacity to use past or anticipated regrets to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. On the other hand, the emotionally unintelligent morally challenged agent allows past or anticipated regret to hinder his or her ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice.

As for acknowledging some of the limitations of the analysis, many scenarios could have been used as analogies to illustrate the significance of regret as it plays a role in influencing the ability to calculate and act on moral correctness. The extreme nature of such serious consequences as death, imprisonment, and drunk-driving are only meant to show the importance of taking moral motivation and emotional intelligence seriously when facing dilemmas of moral correctness.

The dynamics of human behavior are far more complex than these analogies illustrate, of course. However, the relevance of the emotional intelligence framework aligns with the need for all stakeholders to control their own reflexive, autonomic neural fight-or-flight instincts with self-regulation so that one of the three factors of moral motivation can be considered. Further, an upward counterfactual could be applied to motivate all moral stakeholders such that a positive, hopeful outlook would give rise to a shift in future behaviors that would sway behaviors proactively. Even with a downward counterfactual, the application of gratitude a moral stakeholder’s choice could be improved as gratitude offers a quality of appreciation that propels moral actions to a higher level of completion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it has been shown that past regrets from actions or anticipated regrets for future actions can hinder or help one’s ability to calculate and act on the morally correct choice. The three sources of moral motivation can be moral principles or cognitively based standards of right and wrong, empathic reactions to another's feelings, or identification with a moral community such as family, heroes, and other moral groups (Snyder and Lopez 500). Applying key factors of emotional intelligence when the moral agent is calculating and assessing a morally correct choice combines with one’s ability to “identify (be self- aware of one’s moral code), assess (self-regulate the counterfactual imaginings to empathize), and control one’s emotions of oneself, for the sake of others (Salovey, Brackett and Mayer 310). Thus, regret, when thrown into the mix, can result in negative or positive outcomes.

An implicit message of the current report is that normative ethics frameworks like utilitarianism often require scientific support from modern theories like emotional intelligence and moral motivation. Psychology and theories of emotional intelligence are 20th-century developments with diverse implications in the understanding of the human psyche in modernity. In this respect, Jeremy Bentham and other 19th century philosophers held some limited views about human behavior. However, with an added understanding of emotional intelligence and moral motivation, one can find that embracing utilitarian ethics and philosophy is wonderfully aligned with the 21st-century version of altruism. In other words, the greatest happiness for the greatest number can easily be calculated even in light of regrets from past actions or anticipated regrets for future actions.

Works Cited

Greenberg, Melanie. “The Mindful Self-Express: The Psychology of Regret.” Psychology Today. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

Roese, Neal. If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity. New York: Random House. 2005. Print.

Salovey, Peter, Marc A. Brackett and John D. Mayer (Eds.). Emotional Intelligence: Key Readings on the Mayer and Salovey Model. Port Chester: Dude Publishing. 2007. Print.

Snyder, C.R. and Shane J. Lopez (Eds.). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. Print.