Mistakes to want

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Personal Blog

The end of the year is a classic time for reflecting on the year. And a classic part of reflecting is noticing mistakes you have made. I admit that I don’t relish this: having made mistakes, admitting to them, and looking at them further all pain me, and I find it hard to call things mistakes. It’s because to make a mistake would seem to be to make the world worse than it could have been, and thus to indelibly reduce the total goodness of the universe at the end of time, which feels like a big deal and the worst (only?) evil.

Possibly others don’t have the same mental hangups around such things as I do, or have thought clearly about this earlier, but just in case not, I’ll spell out how it actually isn’t bad at all, even in these terms (or at least offer some somewhat scattered thoughts on the matter).

Let us distinguish between two kinds of mistakes: ‘innocent mistakes’ and ‘evil mistakes’.

Suppose you made a mistake. Was it a mistake given what you knew and understood at the time? Then that’s an ‘evil mistake’. For instance, if you think kicking dogs is worse than not kicking them, and you kick one anyway to experience what badness feels like. (It sounds kind of strange to call it a mistake, since it was what you intended, but whatever.)

If your mistake was not an error given your understanding the time, then it’s an ‘innocent mistake’. For instance, if you made an unsuccessful choice about what projects to do, or if you hurt your brother’s feelings because it hasn’t occurred to you that he would be sensitive about his appearance. It is tempting to say that an innocent mistake wasn’t a mistake in the relevant sense. You couldn’t have really done better in your actual circumstances of limited knowledge and limited thought, at least not predictably. Your conscience should be clear, at least. You did the best you could, so you do not seem to deserve blame or regret.

Yet if blame and regret are for teaching people, then it seems you should have them, at least if they are the ways for you to notice or feel your mistake. For instance, perhaps your sister should say ‘you were so mean to Bob!’ or you should find your thoughts sadly dwelling on your choice of projects. On the other hand, there is not much point blaming the evil mistake-doer, unless your blame hurts them in a way that might put them off selfishly in the future, supposing that they haven’t come around. Just pointing out that they were bad is no news to them. Regret might help them more, but it’s a bit unclear how, since by the time they are regretting their evil, it seems they have already changed their mind about whether they prefer evil. In sum, blame, regret and genuine moral wrongness seem to come apart: blame and regret are often helpful for the innocent mistake-maker, and less so for the evil mistake-maker, while it is the evil mistake-maker who is a genuine moral failure.

A different way of putting this is that the notion of innocence put forward here is a bit different from the normal one - for instance, if you were thoughtless because you were young and hadn’t thought about not being thoughtless yet, and implicitly didn’t think being thoughtful was worth it, and you hurt someone, then you are innocent in the current sense, but quite possibly a guilty asshole in more common senses. We all agree that you should have the error of your ways pointed out to you, but I’m claiming that you shouldn’t take this as your having genuinely made the world worse than you might have, or feel that it is a true negative mark in some moral ledger.

Only innocent mistakes are helpful for learning. And only evil mistakes represent having genuinely made the world worse when you could (in the relevant sense) have made it better. So looking back on the year, one can hope without terror to see many innocent mistakes, and no evil mistakes.

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I'd describe some of the additional distinction you are trying to make around innocence as a difference between neglect and true blamelessness.