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Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect

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I explore how agent-regret and its object—faultlessly harming someone—can call for various responses. I look at two sorts of responses. Firstly, I explore responses that respect the agent’s role as an agent. This revolves around a feature of “it was just an accident”—a common response to agent-regret—that has largely gone ignored in the literature: that it can downplay one’s role as an agent. I argue that we need to take seriously the fact that those who have caused harms are genuine agents, to ignore this fails to allow these agents to move on. Secondly, following Sussman and MacKenzie, I explore responses that benefit the victim. I argue that we should strive to understand how to configure these responses in a way that does not blame the agent. To do this I look at the role of actions in our self-understanding, as people who have done particular things. I end by briefly considering the ways in which tort law and restorative justice might help us to understand how to appropriately respond to accidentally harming someone. I urge that we need to take this as a starting point to find a better way to respond to the agents of faultless harms.

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  1. Further, they are not culpable. One could be a non-culpable wrongdoer (for instance, if one is excused). The cases I have in mind are not just non-culpable wrongdoers, rather there is no wrong at all. You do not wrong me if you maim me by driving perfectly safely, though you may harm me.

  2. Compare the disrespectful actions discussed in (Hampton 1991).

  3. See Wojtowicz (2018)

  4. Perhaps one might do something wrongful and feel agent-regret: for instance, you might behave negligently and feel guilt over your negligence and agent-regret over some unexpected result. I will not explore such cases, nor will I explore dilemmas, though my analysis should extend to them.

  5. This will particularly help us to understand the “expression” of agent-regret (Williams 1981: 27). That is, how agents will be driven to express their regret.

  6. This story is recounted in Gregory (2017) The development of this story, and the quotes below, are also from this article.

  7. This comes out in discussion of some of the other characters in Gregory’s article.

  8. See Wallace (2013: 41) and Beever (2008: 490). Williams objects to the “happened to” talk, at least insofar as it is supposed to contrast with the idea that he did it: “What has happened to him, in fact, is that he has brought it about.” (Williams 2008: 70).

  9. This thought is influenced by the following: Raz (2011, chap. 12) and Perry (1991)

  10. Thanks to a reviewer for raising the following important objection: If we can say that Patricia was an agent, even though she did not intend to do this, where are we to stop? Is she responsible for, and an agent of, everything that follows from what she did?

    Williams, and the literature on agent-regret, is committed to the idea that: “The mature agent… will recognize his relation to his acts in their undeliberated, and also in their unforeseen and unintended aspects. He recognises that his identity as an agent is constituted by more than his deliberative self.” (Williams 1995: 32). I agree, and my point in this paper is to work from our idea of agent-regret to work out how we should respond. But this is not a commitment to the idea that our agency extends to all the effects of our actions.

    It is worth addressing how we might provide a stopping point past which unintended consequences are not part of one’s agency. H L A Hart and A M Honoré in Causation in the Law thought there were several stopping points that mean somebody is no longer responsible for something. To take just one broad principle they offered: generally, if a later agent intervenes then the first agent is no longer responsible (Hart and Honoré 1985: 70–77). Had Patricia injured somebody who would have survived, only to be stabbed by a malicious bystander, the bystander would be responsible for the death. This is just one example, but the point here is that many things can intervene to break the chain of causation (Hart and Honoré 1985: 74). Or, to put it in the terms I am using, there are stopping points that mean something is no longer part of my agency. But this still allows that we can be agents concerning things we did not intend (such as when nobody intervenes, Patricia hitting the person is sufficient to kill them). Here is not the place to spell out exactly how we delineate these stopping points, what matters is that we can see there can be such stopping points.

  11. For one, this seems to be a central part of being a person. See Honoré (1999).

  12. See also Strawson (1982).

  13. Another enlightening suggestion, that Mike Zhao pointed out to me, is that she might want to be treated with participant reactive attitudes, rather than objective attitudes: see (Strawson 1982).

  14. Jordan MacKenzie (2017: 109) introduced this case, and we will come to her discussion in much more depth below  2017.

  15. For one disagreement between them, see Sussman (2018: 800 note 18).

  16. She adds that the child’s loved ones can “justifiably feel anger and contempt” (MacKenzie 2017: 114) So this is justified resentment. And it is justified because the social practice of taking on the role of bad guy is itself justified, see MacKenzie (2017: 115). MacKenzie’s position on moral luck and agent-regret is developed in an interesting social practice account, which I do not discuss.

  17. Sussman many not actually endorse this picture, and he thinks it rests upon some rational flaws in humans—though this is compatible with thinking it is a good explanation of agent-regret given that humans are not fully rational, see Sussman (2018: 802). He goes on to offer a picture that concerns conflict. I will not explore the conflict-based picture here.

  18. See Raz (2011: 234–35) See also: “You are my wife's killer!"… can be taken quite literally as an attribution of a certain identity or characteristic… that of being a killer.” (Dan-Cohen 1991: 984). Although Dan-Cohen’s example is of an intentional shooting, it applies just as well to our unfortunate lorry driver. See also the titles of Gregory (2017 and Izard (2018).

  19. John Gardner and Tony Honoré both vividly illuminate this area. I do not go into their work in depth in this paper, but see Gardner (2018) and Honoré (1999).

  20. Though this is true of being a wrongdoer, too. Wrongdoers are not merely wrongdoers, they are parents, lovers, children, friends.

  21. Tony Honoré mentions both apology and explanation at (1999: 78) See also Radzik (2014: 237)..

  22. For a related discussion, see de Wijze (2013: 890–92).

  23. Strict liability cases are perhaps an exception.

  24. See also Hampton (1991) for a broader take on the law.

  25. For excellent overviews of restorative approaches see Walker (2006) and Bennett (2006).


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For discussion of these topics, or comments on this paper, I’m very grateful to: David Owens, Antony Duff, Ulrike Heuer, Massimo Renzo, The Edinburgh Criminal Law Discussion Group, The 2019 Kent Emotions & Punishment Conference, Jordan MacKenzie, Benjamin Matheson, Alex Sarch, Luke Maring, Costanza Porro, Stephen de Wijze, Agata Łukomska, Mike Zhao, and Hannah Davis. I am also grateful to reviewers at this and other journals, who have raised points that have improved this paper or given me much to think about concerning the broader issues surrounding it. Thanks to the Society of Applied Philosophy for a Short-Term Postdoctoral Grant that helped me to complete this paper.

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Wojtowicz, J. Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect. J Ethics 26, 501–516 (2022).

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