Existential Regret

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It is unfortunate that this term has already been used to mean something different, but I have not been able to think of a better label.

There’s something uniquely harrowing about the person who sincerely thinks, “I wish I’d never been born.” Suicide is at least an action, even if an action of despair; but a futile wish never to have been, if by some miracle it were granted, would erase all possibility for agency: not only past wretchedness but with it all future potential for amelioration or atonement.

The thought that life is a misfortune for those thrust into it is a familiar refrain: it is at least as ancient as Hegesias the ‘Death-Persuader’, banned (Cicero has it) from teaching in Alexandria after his advocacy of self-starvation proved fatally effective, and as current as 2006’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Also not without pedigree is the judgment that if our existence is within a vale of tears, this is nothing more than we deserve: one thinks of the doctrine of Original Sin, or, if we alternatively prefer not to speak of desert in this context, then perhaps of the Buddhist conception of karma as simply the operation of cause and effect. Yet existential regret does not seem to require generalities of this sort: he who says, “I wish I had never been born,” or thinks that it would have been better if he had never been or even that he ought never to have been born, may perfectly well think that this lonely judgment applies to him and him alone.

How can a person’s entire existence, entire being, be an occasion for what seems like regret, a regret that (like a mutation of the will to suicide which Kant already condemned as contradictory) involves even regretting the potential for its own happening? How can one regret an entire and as yet an unfinished life?

It is true that regret need not always be oriented towards the past, even if its most familiar form is the wish that one had acted otherwise while one had the chance. I can regret that there will be futures I shall never live to see. The formula ‘I regret to inform you...’ is in the present if it is tensed at all. Regret can even be modal: we can regret that some things cannot be done, or that some misfortune may well come about in spite of our efforts. (One book on regret which I someday intend to finish reading is subtitled The Persistence of the Possible.) It is also true that the scope of regret is not limited to our own actions. Although it is perhaps limited to the actions of some agent or other (for I think it would seem odd to regret the existence of an ancient desert, even if a happier world might have existed had the land been lush and fertile; but no such oddness obviously attaches itself to regretting desertification caused by human deeds), the actions need not be one’s own or even those of one’s own kith and kin, when I may without specification regret that there is so much unhappiness in the world.

Perhaps the common thread is that we regret what we cannot change: one cannot erase the fact of having existed, not only because the past is immutable but precisely because changing anything depends on one’s own agency. Even Sartre would be hard pressed to blame us for shrugging despondently at that; our existence is always chosen for us. But if one not only cannot but never could have changed the fact of one’s having been born, how can it be something anyone could so harshly regret, any more than we might regret Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion as we contemplate the spheres that ‘roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name’? Perhaps one regrets the deeds of one’s ancestors, more specifically one’s parents; but one’s very connection to them depends on the fact of the existence being wished away.

If this of all impossible wishes is so strange and unfathomable, then perhaps I am wrong to associate it with the commonplace experience of regret. Yet I think that whatever we are to say about it we need some way of clutching at the bitterness and anguish of this sentiment which is not altogether suggested by Saul Smilansky’s ‘Preferring Not to Have Been Born’, or even by Bernard Williams’s ‘Resenting One’s Own Existence’. (David Benatar’s book, which I mentioned in the second paragraph, does contain remarks about regretting existence and our coming into it, but he seems little interested in the experience of such regret.) The heartfelt wish never to have been born is not a wish for a different and better life, but an utter yearning not to have been included in the universe, as though one’s wretchedness somehow clung to one essentially, whether it originated in misfortune or in misdeed, and stained one’s soul in all possible lives even before one had begun to live but one of them. Williams writes that ‘Job’s wish is not incoherent [but] there is no way of understanding it except from inside the actual life’. I should like to think that he was expressing scepticism about abstract theorising, and not about the power of human sympathy.

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