I’ve been returning to Steve Angle’s fantastic book Sagehood recently, especially focusing on the parts in which he discusses the problem of moral remainder and his (Neo-Confucian) notion of sagehood. Steve takes “imagination” to be a key solution to this problem, arguing that the sage’s imagination allows him or her to envision alternative ways a supposed dilemma might be solved so as to escape “unscathed” morally. Alternatively, the sage is able through prior imagination to avoid (as much as possible) situations in which there are genuine and inescapable moral dilemmas that necessarily result in moral remainder.
Although I think Steve is certainly right about the Neo-Confucian view and the response that rests on the notion of imagination, I am less sure that sagely imagination will actually resolve the difficulty. This is connected to another worry I have about the issue of sagely regret (or the lack thereof, according to Steve’s reading). I call these ‘worries’ rather than ‘objections’ because I think that what Steve says about sagely imagination is right for the most part–I just worry about the elimination of regret from the sage’s inner life.
According to his reading, the sage never has reason for regret, even if there may be reason for grief. Regret entails the awareness that one could have and should have done differently than one actually did in some situation, and that this difference of action would have made a positive difference on the outcome. Grief, on the other hand, does not entail this. The sage, faced with a moral dilemma which cannot be resolved such that no harm is done, for example, is able to, through imagination, resolve the situation so as to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Because of this, the sage need not have regret–there is literally nothing he or she could have done to make the situation better. Still, the sage can and should be grieved about the inevitable moral remainder arising from his or her resolution of the situation. But, with the knowledge that the resolution was the best that could have been done, the sage has no reason for regret.
There are a couple of problems here. (1) If the above is the case, this gives us good reason to think that the sage is not a possible human being, but rather represents an abstract ideal to which no one could actually attain (a reading of the Confucians that Steve rejects). (2) Even if one concedes that the above sage who can be without regret is a possible human being, such a person would seem to lack something we might think is a necessary feature of a sage–namely the continual desire to cultivate oneself, the absence of the view that one has “arrived,” which lends itself to moral laxity, and the realization of the possibility of different solutions to moral dilemmas that might be equally good.
My problem (1) cannot be forced here, because it turns on the question of whether a morally sensitive person who mediates a moral dilemma to the best of their ability can ever lack regret at moral remainder based on their action. Presumably this can only be answered empirically, although I have serious doubts that a morally sensitive person could ever truly put aside regret in such situations.
Problem (2) is a more difficult one. We might think that the most virtuously developed possible person not only would have regret in such situations–following my intuition in (1)–but more importantly should have regret in such situations. Why might this be? Well, one of the virtues we might expect a sage to have is that of constant self-criticism and awareness of the need of self-cultivation. One can always be better, including the sage. Virtue, in this way, seems to me much like knowledge or understanding. One never attains to a state in which they have complete knowledge, and can gain no more. One’s level of knowledge or understanding can always be greater. Its improvement is open-ended. We cannot thus define the sage as one who has complete knowledge or understanding, and likewise we cannot define the sage as one who has completed virtue in the sense of being to the state where he or she can no longer be improved. It seems clear that no human being can attain such a state. Since this is the case, though, any person qualifying as a sage seemingly should have the virtue of desiring and striving to constantly improve him or herself. But any person with this virtue, it seems to me, will and should experience regret, rather than simply grief, in situations involving moral remainder.
Why is this? Because regret is based on the the possibility that one could have done differently so as to further minimize negative outcomes if only one had been more knowledgeable, morally developed, etc. Regret is based on the perception of personal failure, and the contribution of this personal failure to a negative outcome. If the sage has the virtue of recognizing his or her moral imperfection, then how could the sage avoid feeling regret that, had he or she been more developed, been smarter, had greater knowledge, etc., things would have turned out differently? One could always have greater moral strength than one has (even if one has incredible, sagelike strength), and the sage should be the first to recognize this. Thus, even if less-than-sagely people would not be inclined to hold the sage responsible for moral remainder of his or her action, the sage him or herself would, and should. Indeed, the sage’s profound moral understanding and great virtue should make him or her more likely to feel regret in such cases than the less-than-sagely person would. The less-than-sagely person might be inclined to think “I did all I could–it simply couldn’t be avoided”, but could a sage think this way? This seems implausible to me, because such a thought seems to me to arise from a moral failing rather than a virtue.