Regrets, I Have A Few
What does an economist get his dad for Father’s Day? If you’re Bryan Caplan, the answer would seem to be: you get him a philosophical argument against regret:
1. Basic biology: A man produces hundreds of millions of sperm every day. Each of these sperm contains (half of) the genetic blueprint for a different person. The slightest physical movement changes the position of sperm.
2. Therefore, any change in my life prior to my children’s conception would have led my children not to exist. If I had crossed my legs differently, or walked to the frig, or even chuckled an extra time, the sperm would have been rearranged, negating my children’s existence. I might have had different children, of course, but they wouldn’t be the ones I have.
3. Like most parents, I have a massive endowment effect vis-a-vis my children. I love them greatly simply because they exist and they’re mine. If you offered to replace one of my sons with another biological child who was better in every objective way, I’d definitely refuse.
4. Therefore, if you offered me a “do-over” on any aspect of my life prior to my children’s conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.
5. Since I wouldn’t want to change any event prior to my children’s conception, I have nothing to regret. And since I have nothing to regret during this period, I don’t regret anything.
Note that this argument only rules out regret prior to the conception of your last child. Events between the final conception and the present wouldn’t change the identity of your children, so the argument from the endowment effect doesn’t apply. It also doesn’t apply if you wish you’d had a different child, or no child at all. But your child has to be pretty rotten to warrant such a wish, no?
If you think this is just my egghead way of saying “Happy Father’s Day!,” you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. What I’m really saying is that if you love your children just because they’re the ones you got, you have a special reason to be happy every day. After all, you can survey your whole life before your last child’s conception and honestly say: “It all happened for a reason. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Oh happy fault, oh necessary leg crossing of Bryan, that won for him so great a son.
One must distinguish here between regretting something and believing it immoral. Unless one adopts a particularly unpersuasive version of consequentialism (one that judges an action solely by its consequences judges by the actor at some later date, but without giving any consideration to the actor’s beliefs or intentions at the time of the action), one is going to be faced with situations where an evil action leads to a good result. One temptation in such situations is to deny that the action in question is evil. One hears a version of this sometimes from couples who have conceived out of wedlock. Pre-marital sex may seem wrong, but at least in this case that can’t be right, since that would mean saying that our Jenny should never have existed.
Bryan’s argument serves, I think, as a pretty effective reductio to this point of view. Since any change in a person’s behavior up to the conception of their child would have prevented the conception of that child, one would therefore have to deny that prior to Jenny’s conception her parents had never done anything wrong. And the same would apply to each of her parents’ parents, and so on back to the beginning of the human race.
The other temptation would be to think that, since a given action was immoral, one ought to regret it. This is a little trickier. On the one hand, to regret something is to wish that one hadn’t done it, then presumably one ought to regret one’s sins, even though in doing so you are implicitly wishing that one’s children had never been born. As Newman put it:
The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
Strange as it may sound, though, there may be cases where it is appropriate to be glad or thankful that some evil action has occurred, such as when a criminal attacks an undercover cop in a police sting. And it does often seem that God uses a person’s sins and failings for a greater purpose (as with St. Paul and the thorn in his side). Thinking about how exactly to regard such evil actions, however, can make your head spin, and so rather than getting into the merits of Infra versus Superlapsarianism, I suppose I will leave off here.
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