September 30, 2005

Remorse and Regret

There are two types of apology, and it is important to keep them separate yet recognise the importance of both. The first kind is the pure apology, in which someone expresses remorse at an action done. In this case, someone says that he or she would not have performed the action if given the chance again. The second kind of apology is sometimes called a "sham" apology, though they are very important. In this case, someone regrets the harm he or she has done to another, but still would not have acted differently. These different apologies express remorse and regret, respectively. Remorse is concerned with right versus wrong action, while regret is concerned with good versus bad consequences.

To be unbelievably simplistic for a moment, there is a different language used about actions and the consequences of actions. When making a decision, one weighs the consequences, both good and bad. The option that causes the most good and does the least bad is the right option (I told you I was being unbelievably simplistic; one may add moral goods in here so as to avoid utilitarianism). However, even though a decision may be the right decision, that is, it is the decision that is the best overall, that does not necessarily mean that it does not have bad consequences. As such, a decision may both be right and at the same time, have bad results.

There are different terms for what is felt in each of these cases. In the case where someone made the wrong decision, one expresses remorse. In this case, one often feels guilt, as one should have behaved differently. So, when one makes an apology, one is saying that he or she would not behave the same way if given the same opportunity. However, there is a lesser and still important apology. When one makes the right decision, but harms someone, one ought to feel regret for the outcome. One may still have acted the same way, but one feels compassion for others' suffering and regret for one's causal role in that pain. In this case, an apology expresses that regret.

Both kinds of apologies are important, but one must keep them separate. If one apologises in such a way that it sounds like one is expressing remorse when one is only expressing regret, one might get the response of, "So, would you do it again?". When the answer is "yes", one is likely to be greeted with anger and a charge of hypocricy. However, if one fails to apologise when one has caused harm, one comes across as cruel and perhaps even malicious. Expressing regret when performing a right action with bad results has the consequence of showing a lack of indifference and allowing the harmed party to feel less used.

How, then, should one apologise in an instance where someone has caused harm but would still have acted the same way? In these cases, the distinction between remorse and regret is very useful. We can show our concern for the feelings of others while not dishonestly saying we would have acted differently. In situations like breakups, firing employees and failing students, one may give an apology of regret that is not simply a sham apology.


Ash Sere said...

How about combining this with a previous article of yours:

How do you apologise to yourself for something you've done which will loop back in time and harm yourself?

Then, I suppose, you would certainly have regret, but clearly not remorse, since otherwise you wouldn't go on and end up doing the thing that you know will harm yourself...

Or perhaps you would in fact have remorse, but be powerless to alter the course of time...

Linda said...

what can you do when you have done something wrong, yet the person who is hurt refuses to accept any apology?

Ash Sere said...

Is that some kind of spectacular hint Linda Corby?

What did she do to you Daniel?!

Lori said...

Confused. I found this on
Wiersbe suggests that a distinction can be made between regret, remorse and repentance. Regret is that activity of the mind (intellect) that causes us to say, “Why did I do that?” Remorse touches us a little deeper causing us to feel disgust and pain (involving both the intellect and the heart), but not causing us to change our ways. True repentance brings in the third aspect of our minds – our will. To truly repent one must have a change of will. “Godly sorrow” is the catalyst that brings us to true repentance. [Warren Wiersbe, Be Reverent, p. 149.]

This would seem to transpose your definitions of remorse and regret, wouldn't it? I'm not trying to be a jerk, here. I really am confused about the difference.

What are your thoughts about the above?

Linda Corby said...

I haven't done anything to Daniel Ash, nor do I intend to,lol!!

It was just a general point I was making. I haven't actually done anything to anyone I can think of!!! Not that sort of person.

No one can alter the course of time, but it never hurts anyone to apologize for wrongs done.

You should chck out what Dick Francis did to me at and see if you can work out why this guy doesn't apologize for his actions.

Let me know what you think, you can contact me if you like or need further information! Have a fun day!

Valerie said...

This is spot on! agree totally, experienced the distinction

Anonymous said...

I desperately need to know that name of the painting that you have for this article. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, regret vs. remorse. Regret doesn't necessarily have a moral component. For example, I hire someone who turns out to be a lousy employee and I have to fire him. I regret that I hired him in the first place, but that doesn't mean that I did anything morally wrong. Or I regret buying Facebook stock at the IPO price, but again, that doesn't mean that I did anything morally wrong.

Remorse, on the other hand, is a more severe emotion than regret, and implies that I know that I did something morally wrong.

Tiffiny said...

This is great!