Remorse is a mixture of regret and guilt that stems from the recognition of an offence.
Regret is similar to remorse in the sense of having done something regrettable and having deep sorrowful feelings associated with being responsible for the unfortunate consequences, yet whereas regret can be caused by a preventable unfortunate situation, where no offence has been committed, remorse specifically refers to the undue harm caused to another. The major overtone of remorse is regret, but it’s specifically regret about an offence that leads to guilt.
Remorse is a sign that people are taking responsibility for the undue negative effects they have caused another. Remorse requires empathising or sympathising with the victim of offence. People who are genuinely remorseful do not want to commit the act again. They are genuinely sorry for what they have done.
For these reasons, remorse plays a central role in Western courts of law. Judges and juries will endeavour to see if people, who have admitted guilt, feel remorse for what they have done. If they are remorseful, they are unlikely to commit the crime again. There will usually be clearly defined circumstances that led up to the crime being committed, and the remorseful person will usually provide a clear narrative of what happened. When people are sentenced for a crime, the remorseful will receive a sentence that is less severe than those who are unrepentant and feel no remorse.
Unremorseful people will continue to be a threat to civilised society. They have not consciously acknowledged the undue negative effects of their behaviour. Unremorseful people are still motivated by the same psychological architecture that leads to undue harm being imposed on others.
Remorse can be thought of as the point at which forgiveness starts. Nonetheless, this does not mean that remorseful people will not be punished. Although punishment and forgiveness are two separate things, in reality one often follows the other. Even when people are understood not to have intended any injury and are remorseful for what they have done, if the crime is serious, there’s something of an unwritten rule that people must also take their punishment before being completely forgiven. Just as if undergoing punishment willingly is a necessary deterrent to stop re-offending and a sign of true remorse.
This leads to the two significant theoretical arguments for what stops crime.
First, remorse is the most significant way in which people could refrain from repeating their crimes. Although remorse may be the best deterrent for stopping future offences, an offence has already been committed, so it’s not a perfect solution. People also need to possess the ability to feel (sympathise or empathise) for the victims of the crime to feel remorse.
Second, “fear of punishment” as an intended deterrent would theoretically suit those who – for whatever reason – cannot empathise with their victims, so they cannot be remorseful. Fear can prevent people committing an offence in the first place. Yet it’s not as reliable at stopping reoffending as there’s not necessarily any respect for the would-be victim. Fear of punishment can also cause people to become rebellious and commit offences due to feeling dominated.
Two further important factors also complicate the ‘fear of punishment’ issue. According to the findings of research, certainty of punishment is much more important than the severity of punishment in deterring criminal behaviour. The likelihood people will get caught and be punished is a greater discouragement, to would-be criminals, than a severe punishment alone.1 The fewer people in a population that agree a specific behaviour is offensive, or the fewer people that are willing to report offences, the more unreliable fear becomes as a deterrent. Thus fear is unreliable when not enforced in a uniform fashion, is unnecessary for people who feel remorse, and causes rebellious offences if misused.
Until the beginnings of civilisation, selfishness, outside of the family unit, was the most dominant mentality in evolution. When the person who is unduly harmed is a family member or someone known intimately, people feel remorse to a much greater intensity.
Throughout early evolution people concerned themselves with caring as far as the nuclear family. Then in time the care included the extended family. Then eventually people began to care for communities several thousand years ago when societies first developed because of farming.
Due to survival being the motivating factor, stealing in early evolution would have been considered nothing more than competition. Stealing clearly became redundant when people began living side by side in ever increasing numbers. Farming caused humans to become close knit gregarious people who had food in greater supply. The likelihood of getting caught stealing in a developing small community would have been very high, and the consequences of being thrown out of the community would have been severely threatening.
Also, because a farming community can produce food, stealing food would have been less of a survival issue. So, stealing of food would have gone from being a desirable activity to an undesirable one. The likelihood is that it would have caused more upset than it was worth.
Instincts which developed over millions of years have, however, a tendency to dominate more recent faculties that allow people to empathise. When instincts are no longer needed because of a change in behaviour, redundant impulses continue as propensities that urge similar ways of behaving, and the perception of negative consequences becomes people’s motivation to refrain. Perceiving negative consequences for one’s self and empathising with the undue negative effects on community members are two different things. The former has been about since the dawn of consciousness. The latter is but a matter of civilisation.
Whether it’s accurately judging someone else’s remorse or accurately judging someone else’s distress, people are suspicious of new abilities like empathy. This relates to how selfish people’s attitudes are, and thus how selfish people assume others to be. If people cannot accept the undue negative effects their selfishness has caused others, how can they understand or trust the legitimacy of the remorse another expresses? People’s inability to accept someone else’s remorse can say more about themselves than anyone else – projection. Remorse is not a selfish emotion. The infinitely unfortunate thing is that it’s always preceded by an offence.
Nevertheless, punishment is dealt judicially to the remorseful as well as the unremorseful. This is partially because empathising is one of the newest human evolutionary abilities. People are not proficient in knowing whether another is truly remorseful or acting for a more lenient sentence. This does not negate the credibility of remorse – only a human’s ability to gauge it properly. This is a significant reason why remorse is rendered as an insufficient, unreliable and untrustworthy characteristic when it comes to complete forgiveness.
Regret can simply describe sadness over a missed opportunity without any implied guilt. Remorse is a deeply sad and guilty experience created by owning the offences one has committed.
Latin. Remordere = to vex, disturb or to bite back.
1. Moral anguish arising from past misdeeds.
2. Distress caused by the guilt of past offences.