Bioethics Blogs

The Impossibility of Regret: Implications for Medical Decision Making Disability Ethics

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

In his recent book, “The View From Here: On Affirmation, Attachment and the Limits of Regret,” philosopher R. Jay Wallace enters interesting philosophical territory that has significant implications for bioethics topics such as medical decision making and disability ethics. Wallace begins his book by introducing the example of a young girl who becomes pregnant as a teenager, has the child, and is now an adult “looking back.” Wallace holds that it is impossible for the now woman to regret the decision she made to have a child so young because of the attachment she now has to the child, despite the fact that she recognizes that this was, objectively, a “bad” or unjustified decision. The main phenomenon that Wallace focuses on in the book is what he calls the “attitude of affirmation” which refers to the tendency people have to abjure regrets for earlier events we look back on (i.e., we say we would make the same choice over again). This tendency is conditioned by our attachments resulting from that decision. And Wallace points out that there is often a divergence between our attitudes of retrospective affirmation and our evaluative assessment about justification (i.e., we admit that it may not have been the right or justified decision under the circumstances). This divergence allows for a person to have two views, in a way. One is the view that they would “do it all over again” and the other is the view that in a way “it was the wrong thing to do.” Whereas others have viewed these two positions to be in tension, Wallace believes it is common and uncontroversial for people to simultaneously hold both.

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