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Commentator:
Alison McIntyre, Wellesley College
(amcintyre@wellesley.edu)
Posted 9/12/96

I. The Proportionality View
h-drop.gif - 1.4 Kurka argues that the view one holds about the rationality of regretting a forgone lesser good when one has chosen a greater good should be seen as an instance of a more general view about "how it is best to divide our love between different good objects" (p. 557). The general view which he cites as the ground or justification of regret for a forgone lesser good, the "proportionality view," is consistent, he argues, with value monism. It holds that in one's attitudes toward two goods, one should divide one's feelings "in proportion to the goods' relative values: more for the greater good, but still some for the lesser good" (p. 557); thus, it is rational to regret not having produced the lesser good if the intensity of one's regret is proportional to the value of its object -- if it is less intense than one's satisfaction in the greater good that one chose, so that one's "predominant feeling is one of satisfaction" (p. 556).

I am not convinced that the view that regret for a forgone lesser good can be rational is "even more persuasive when it is seen as but one application of the more general proportionality view" (p. 558). Mostly this is because the specific view he defends about regret incorporates or presupposes many features that are not present in the general view. For example, Hurka classifies regret for the forgone lesser good as a sub-species of some more general pro-attitude ("desiring or loving") that one can have toward any state of affairs that one values. Yet, the special kind of regret at issue here, regret for a forgone lesser option, is directed at disvalued as well as valued states of affairs; it depends on the agent's recognition that the chosen option lacks some valued feature of the forgone option. In addition, I would submit that what distinguishes regretting some state of affairs from other evaluative attitudes is the fact that regret is tied to choice and its consequences: other unfortunate states of affairs may be deplored, resented, or decried, but if they are not related to one's doing or choosing one cannot strictly speaking regret them.

Hurka seems to assume that when regret is rational, it is rationally required. He remarks "If you have just chosen one holiday from among ten possible holidays, you ought rationally to regret the holidays you will not take, but you should not do so to excess" (p. 558). If this is an implication of the proportionality view, that seems to count against the general position. Surely there must be other conditions on the appropriateness of regret, and many of them may be pragmatic in character, and so dependent on the context and consequences of choice. Hurka's modal condition, which is supposed to apply to all cases of valuing states of affairs, and not only to regret, is implausible perhaps because it is meant to apply so broadly: it doesn't register the particular ways in which temporal location and agency interact with possibility in modulating the intensity of regret.

II. The Distinctness Condition
Hurka and his pluralist opponents assume that in situations in which one chooses between a lesser good and a greater good, and the greater good is chosen because it is greater:

1. Regret for the forgone lesser good is rational only if the forgone lesser good is not included in the chosen greater good.

The pluralists claim that:

2. The forgone lesser good is not included in the chosen greater good only if they are instances of a distinct generic good.

And the pluralists conclude that:

3. Regret for the forgone lesser good is rational only if the two goods are instances of a distinct generic good.

Against 2, Hurka argues that if the forgone lesser good is an instance of the same generic good as the chosen greater good, regret for the lesser good may still be rational. He offers as a replacement for 2:

2'. The forgone lesser good is not included in the chosen greater good only if it is distinct in its intrinsic properties.

1 and 2' together yield the conclusion that

3'. Regret for the forgone lesser good is rational only if it is distinct [from the chosen greater good] in its intrinsic properties.

I believe that Hurka's condition does not capture the notion of non-inclusion that figures in claim 1 above. For example, after eating two bagels, one can feel some slight regret at not having had just one (one feels overly full), though one still thinks that one chose the greater good (just one would not have been enough). The experience of eating the first bagel (the forgone option) is clearly included in the chosen option, yet regret is rational because one values some aspect of the forgone option (not feeling overly full) that is lacked by the chosen option. Does Hurka's condition allow regret in such a case? I am not sure that it does. The experience of eating two bagels does indeed have many intrinsic characteristics lacked by the experience of eating just one bagel, but that can't be cited to explain one's regret: all greater goods will have such features, that is what makes them greater. What is needed is an intrinsic property that is present in the forgone case and missing in the chosen option. But the difference that grounds the regret seems to involve a relational and therefore extrinsic property of the forgone option: the property of not being followed by the experience of eating another bagel.

A pluralist might also object that Hurka's account cannot explain the crucial evaluative element that makes regret for a forgone lesser good rational despite the fact that it is acknowledged to be a lesser good. Suppose that the chosen option, reading a novel by Edith Wharton, was correctly predicted to yield more pleasure than the forgone option, reading a collection of short stories by the same author. Nevertheless, one could regret missing out on the kind of pleasure that comes from reading a story in its entirety in one session. Hurka thinks the monist says enough if he says that the agent misses a certain way of instantiating pleasure, one that is intrinsically different from the chosen option, though offering less pleasure. But is this enough? If the intrinsic property that is missing in the chosen option is not something that is, itself, valued by the agent, it makes no sense to miss it. But how can a monist express what is valuable about it? It seems that the monist can say only that the forgone option has less of what is valued (pleasure) but that this pleasure would have arisen from a different source and would have had a different character. But this is not enough. To show the rationality of regret, the monist must also be able to explain how an option with this character would be better in some respect though it would produce less pleasure.

Hurka might say in response that this kind of regret involves taking up a deliberately limited perspective: the forgone lesser option may have a greater degree of pleasure from one kind of source than the chosen option did, and regret for the forgone lesser good focuses on this respect in which the forgone option was better despite the fact that all things considered, the forgone option offered less pleasure. But if this is the view, does it really show the regret to be rational? It grounds regret for forgone lesser options in a kind of error: the error of evaluating options in a way that does not take everything relevant into account. What is appealing about the pluralist account is that it promises to explain this kind of regret as an inevitable consequence of taking everything relevant (and everything valuable) into account!

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