Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Defence of Regrets

"Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."
Henry Thoreau

This quote by the American Transcendentalist Thoreau may seem an odd post to begin an ethics blog, but there are at least two reasons I think it is pertinent. I am quite fond of his work, that is one reason, but more importantly I want to use it to say that feelings and emotion are integral to thinking about and living ethics.
When thinking philosophically about ethics there is the danger of wanting to bar feelings and emotions from the ethical equation. This may stem from a wariness of Subjectivism or Relativism, especially if one is committed to a Universalist school of ethical thought. But if ethics is to be useful, and if it is a vehicle that can develop us as human beings and guide us in the gritty dynamic realities of existence, then any ethical perspective will be impoverished and in my mind, somewhat hollow without a robust place for, and understanding of, emotion in moral thought. Computers cannot make moral decisions, not just because ethics isn't about simple equations involving empirical facts, but because they cannot feel.
Indeed, when commenting on the classic ethical problem involving two people drowning in a pond, one of them a stranger and one of them your wife, American philosopher Franklin suggests that it would be a strange sort of person that did not go to save his wife in preference to the stranger. With love as the motivator, I want to say he should prioritise his wife, and I also want to say that this is a sound moral action. This might seem to chaf with a commitment to the moral equality of all persons.
Is there some important distinction to be made if in a similar example to the above; the husband is an emergency doctor who has two patients and only one person he can choose to save, one patient being his wife? How can we understand and configure emotion in ethical deliberation? I am not going to suggest anything here, that is something that we all have to think about. What I will do is return to my original starting point, regret. Like all emotions that we engage healthily with it can be a motivator, instigator, catalyst and intuitive guide. To smother it because it is uncomfortable, or to try and live a life without it in my mind is to eviscerate the full experience of being and the opportunities for growth it opens, and that truly is a wrong.

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