Agent-regret in our lives

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation is a defence of agent-regret and an exploration of its role in our lives. I argue that agent-regret shows that an agent takes seriously her status as an agent who impacts the world, but who only has fallible control over it. To accept responsibility for any outcomes, she must accept responsibility for unintended outcomes, too: agent-regret is part of being a human agent. In doing this, I try to defend and develop Williams’s own conception of agent-regret. 
In the first part, I explore the nature of agent-regret. Agent-regret is distinct from guilt because we can feel agent-regret without being at fault. I argue that several challenges that seek to reduce agent-regret to a form of guilt fail. I further argue that agent-regret takes as its object not only something one has done, but the fact that one did it; I discuss this in terms of what Bernard Williams called taking an “external” view on one’s own action. 
I suggest that we can best understand the object of agent-regret as one’s responsibility for an outcome. I argue that this form of “responsibility” is conceptually separate from liability or answerability; it concerns whether the outcome can be ascribed to an agent. This is a restricted form of causal responsibility but retains its agential character. I suggest that we can be responsible for outcomes even when we did not intend to bring them about. 
In the second part, I vindicate the propriety of agent-regret against the ideas that we are not responsible for unintended outcomes or that such responsibility is not important. I set out several challenges to this effect. I argue that we are responsible for unintended outcomes because in order to be responsible as agents at all, we must use fallible abilities. When we exercise these abilities but fail, we are responsible as agents for those unintended outcomes that arise. I then consider the importance of being responsible for particular unintended outcomes and analyse the idea that this affects our identities. I argue that responsibility for an outcome affects a form of identity, but that it does not involve essential features of a person. Instead, our responsibility for outcomes is a contingent feature that nonetheless plays an important role in our interpersonal interactions and self-conceptions. I argue that these reactions are appropriate, because our responsibility for particular outcomes is independently significant—but these reactions also lend this responsibility added significance as part of inescapable human practices. 
Thus our responsibility for outcomes is important. Its importance means that it can serve as an appropriate object of agent-regret that vindicates the propriety of agent-regret. I end by considering several interesting features of agent-regret, including its expression and “pure” cases, which are cases where an agent feels agent-regret despite not regretting the result of her action.
Date of Award1 Oct 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Owens (Supervisor) & Massimo Renzo (Supervisor)

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