Bryan Caplan in Parenthood as the Trump of All Past Regret explains: whatever tiny alterations he makes to his life before he had his children, would result in him not having the precise children he has today whom he so dearly loves, and therefore he does not regret a thing.

This is seems to me like an entirely wrong use of regret. I think regret is useful when it suggests how you could have done otherwise, when having different such behavioral policy consistently leads to better results in structurally similar situations.

It's not exactly like the mistake of thinking that chaos theory should suggest you pay attention to every little thing in life. There the mistake was to think you could reliably and precisely enough predict how the little things being different leads to outcomes being different. Bryan is thinking about a very specific outcome in his life which he already knows has come to pass. He is counterfactually considering how it would not have been if everything in his past were not exactly as they were.

But given determinism, everything is already decided. This does not rule out free will, but it does suggest a proper use for counterfactuals. According to Vladimir Nesov: The meaning of a thing is how you should be influenced by it (the most succinct expression of LW philosophy imho). According to Gary Drescher: Why should you consider alternatives when making a decision, given that your ultimate actions are already determined? Because counterfactually-speaking if you did not consider such alternatives, you wouldn't have decided the way you did. So the use of counterfactuals, and in particular regret, is for us deciding how to behave. I don't see how Caplan's regret makes use of this.

And of course, there are other aesthetic uses to counterfactuals. Fiction, to take an obvious example. But am I missing something here in thinking that Bryan's regret is quite useless?

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He's failing to distinguish between (1) "I love my children and am very glad to have them and would be very upset if they were replaced by different children" and (2) "My children are in some absolute sense the best children there could possibly be, and if they'd been different I wouldn't love them and be so glad to have them". #1 is normal and reasonable and sensible and nice. #2 is batshit insane.

I think a similar error is behind some people's alarm at the idea that the existence of physical disabilities is a bad thing that people might try to do away with ("do you want to do away with my sister, who has this disability?").

And I think a slightly less similar error is behind the repugnance of Derek Parfit's "repugnant conclusion" (you can start with some natural assumptions about what makes the world a better place, and end up with the conclusion that our world is less good than an alternative with vastly more people, all of whom have lives that are just barely worth living -- but what "just barely worth living" means is not "if they were slightly worse the people whose lives they are would prefer to be dead" but "the world is better for their existence, but only just").

None of the above has anything much to do with regret, but I do also think there's something wrong with how Caplan is thinking about regret. But I think the mistake described above is the really big one.

Doesn't he distinguish between (1) and (2)? From the article:

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.

Kinda, but -- playing along with the assumption we're all making, namely that he means what he says and isn't just having fun -- he makes the exact same mistake between steps 3 and 4 of his argument: he goes, explicitly, from "if you offered to replace one of my children with a better one I'd say no" to "I wouldn't want anything in my past to be different because then I'd have different children".

Changing something in his past wouldn't be like taking away the children he now has and giving him replacements. It would mean change what children he's always had.

Yes. Moreover, for a structural (as opposed to indexical) approach (i.e. closer to your #2), would he not have the predisposition to regret whatever bad decisions he made, even though the decisions led to him having the kids he has, he would be less likely to have the kids he has. (Because he would have made more severely bad decisions, etc.)

You're right - in the counter-factual world where he jiggled his sperm and had a different child, he would value that child via the endowment effect. Thanks for clarifying for me.

It seems to me that Caplan is making approximately the same mistake as the guy who says "I'm glad I don't like spinach, because if I did then I would eat it, and I can't stand the stuff". But that's just a vague feeling and I don't have any general principle to rule out such mistakes. Anyone?

I don't see how it's even approximately the same mistake.

Caplan is correct in thinking that his children would be different persons than who they are now, if there were any alterations to his past. He is correct in thinking Caplan-now would not love these children. He also realizes that Caplan-counterfactual would love these children.

It's as with the pebble sorters. You could acknowledge that you would find prime number heaps morally correct if you were to become a pebble sorter yet deny that prime number heaps are morally correct.

I just don't think it's a very productive regret Caplan is having there. Because he should regret some parts of his past life because such regret would be instrumental in making his future better.

I feel the mistake is in transplanting Caplan-now into the universe of Caplan-counterfactual, just like the guy in my quote transplants himself into a bizarre alternate universe where he eats spinach despite hating it. It would make more sense to empathize with Caplan-counterfactual directly.

Hmm it depends on what you're trying to accomplish with the counterfactual I think. Is there a particular reason why you think it would make more sense to empathize with the Caplan-counterfactual, independent of it being more 'consistent' I guess?

Not sure. I can't dissolve my own confusion about the question yet. But a big part of it is indeed about consistency: it worries me that both Caplan-now and Caplan-counterfactual claim to have no regrets about the past, even though their pasts are different.

Well I don't think it makes sense to regret one's entire past and be satisfied with merely that. You want to draw specific lessons from your past. An ideal agent might not need regret of course, being able to learn from past mistakes without a feeling of regret toward a specific event which gave rise to the general lesson. But I think humans might find it useful to have an event serve as a reminder of a lesson learned.

We can interpret Caplan's "no regret" (perhaps too charitably) as "my past does not contain any lessons wrt. me behaving in a certain way in order to have my children be a certain way". But this leaves room for other lesson-specific regret wrt. other genuine lessons.

As for the massive counterfactual of "Caplan having behaved even minisculely different in his past", I think it's quite useless and hence meaningless, at least with respect to Caplan and his children. It doesn't help him better raise his children, for example. It's like how not every English sentence corresponds to a meaningful statement.

There is likely no possible alternate past or present in which Caplan does not love his children. I don't think you are wrong with regard to your thoughts of what constitutes a valuable function of regret, but in this case the argument he makes is almost incomprehensible; and to the extent that it can have a coherent meaning it is wrong.

If you thought your kids were about a hundred times better than you had any right to expect, this attitude might make sense. Bryan Caplan offers no evidence for any such thing, though. It seems likely that he is just being silly.

It may be that most regret has an element of "I wish the universe was different. If only I had been a better person, it would be different", and is psychologically poisonous.

Giving up regret because there's something about the the universe that one doesn't want to change might be the psychologically wiser choice, while giving learning from past mistakes should have a different name-- possibly "learning from past mistakes".

I guess I call it regret when I look back on prior mistakes and still wince at the thought of them. While it has certainly motivated me to learn, that wince itself isn't about learning.

I think he was making a joke, or at least an intentionally overblown statement.

This seems likely. Still I think there's a lesson to be learned here :)

(on the general topic of regret)

I can't recall any instance of extreme, wincing regret at some moment in my life, that doesn't have a flavor of regret for what it signals about me. That is, if regret has a use, it's to spur me to avoid damaging my reputation and relationships. For this to cover all cases, though, it would have to be the case that the mechanism is too dumb to realize that nobody knows except me - just that it would be damaging if it were known.

I do feel like I want to suppress regret (not by doing fewer things to regret), so that only the worries I find useful are implanted in my mind.

In the category of non-signaling regret, which upon consideration isn't empty (just less painful, in my experience), I suppose losses of resource, opportunity, or health are felt roughly twice as severe as a gain (according to various research I won't search for).

I've yet to lose my wallet. But I feel potential regret every time I realize I'm insufficiently aware of its whereabouts. I don't think actual regret is needed; imagined regret is just fine (and potentially unwanted). I've known other (well-off) people who have stronger or less discriminate tendencies toward regret and worry than I do, and they seem less happy.

Bravo! That's insightful. Thank you.

(I placed the Nesov quote there to hopefully prime people into not immediately accept whatever senses of regret which seem to 'make sense'. For example, merely looking for 'consistency'.)

I think it's Caplan with a C.

Whoops. Thanks for the correction.

I thought Bryan was being silly there because it violates his own assertions that children aren't nearly as parameter sensitive as assumed.


I thought the idea was they aren't all that sensitive to nurture. Spermies and eggses still pretty important.