Tuesday 9 May 2023

Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect

Today`s post is by Jake Wojtowicz on recent paper "Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect" (The Journal of Ethics, 2023). Jake Wojtowicz earned his PhD from King's College London in 2019. He lives in Rochester, NY where he writes about the ethics and the philosophy of sport.

Jake Wojtowicz

Writing in The New Yorker, Alice Gregory talks about accidental killers and introduces a motorist, Patricia, who - temporarily blinded by the sunlight in her eyes - hit and killed a cyclist. It wasn’t her fault, but she spent time in the suicide unit and this has ruined her life. She even wrote to the state attorney asking to be criminally punished. 

Bernard Williams suggested someone in Patricia’s situation should feel “agent-regret”. This isn’t the guilt of the intentional or reckless wrongdoer, and it isn’t the regret of the bystander. In “Agent-regret, accidents, and respect”, I reflect on Patricia’s case to shed light on how we should think about someone who accidentally harms others. 

One way of understanding agent-regret is that it’s the regret that attaches to accidents. But Patricia was angered by friends who described what happened as an accident: “Yes, it was an accident… but, at the end of the day, I hit him, I took his life…No matter how much you want to dismiss it as an accident, I still feel responsible for it, and I am… I hit him! Why does nobody understand this?”

Yet it certainly was an accident, and why should anyone go to prison for an accident? Well, I think there is something revealing in Patricia’s desire to be punished, and it links to her annoyance at describing what happened as an accident. Prison is for agents

Being reminded that something was an accident can bring a deal of comfort - and it is important to make sure people like Patricia don’t blame themselves in the way they would if they had done something intentionally evil. But I think when we describe things as accidents we can unintentionally diminish the fact that somebody has done something. 

Thomas Nagel - in his Moral Luck, written alongside Williams’s piece - argues that there are two ways we can see our role in the world. On one hand, as mere things in the world; on the other hand as responsible agents. If we see what happened to Patricia as an accident, we run the risk of seeing her role as “swallowed up by the order of mere events”. We take her agency out of it. But this isn’t something that just happened to or through Patricia, rather it is something she did. Through no fault of her own, for sure, but it is nonetheless true that Patricia killed the motorcyclist. 

Paying heed to this does two things. Firstly, it lets us properly understand Patricia’s position, and it lets us help her in moving on - if she sees herself as an agent and we see her as an accident, we can’t do that. Secondly, it properly respects Patricia as an agent. Being an agent is central to our self-respect. If we downplay that in Patricia’s case, we run the risk of downplaying a central part of being human. 

Paying heed to the agency in agent-regret should help us better understand Patricia. She wants to be punished because she needs to be recognized as an agent. And in working out how she should move forward, and how we - as bystanders, friends, even victims - should treat her, we need to find a way to respond to her that respects her as an agent without lumping her in with the evildoers in the world. 

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