In his discussion of remorse and of the pity which we might feel towards a wrongdoer, Peter Winch makes the following observation:

Certain attitudes which we can understand as possible as between one man and another cannot be brought into play in the same way in considering a man's relation to his own life. Self-compassion, for example, is a nonsense term. There is, notoriously, such a thing as self-pity, but this seems to be incompatible with, or at least corrupting of, a devaluation of, the agent's condemnation of his offence, of his remorse. ('Trying', in Ethics and Action p.145)

The overall thrust of Winch's argument here is that there is a fundamental distinction between the relation that one has towards one's own actions and the relation which one has to the actions of others, hence to the kinds of attitudes which these relations license. In the case of wrongdoing this is captured in the inescapability of a vulnerability to feel remorse for one's actions; remorse being a (the only?) way of taking ownership of one's misdeed, and facing its consequences. This demand to take ownership of one's actions means that adopting a certain form of care (pity) which one might feel towards someone else who has committed a wrong, is not an option to the morally serious individual reflecting on their own actions.

Without wanting to question the overall thrust of Winch's argument here, one sentence of this paragraph stands out for me, namely the bald assertion that "self-compassion is a nonsense term". This is an uncharacteristic remark, since Winch usually very careful not to reject uses of language ab initio, but rather to interrogate what it would take to give a claim sense, to try to picture a context in which a form of words would seem to fit. And in this case, I think we do not have to look too far to find a relevant context in which talk of self-compassion makes perfectly good sense.

Thus, the idea of self-compassion is crucial to the healing process for people who suffer from excessive self-blame, for instance those who feel 'survivors guilt', having witnessed the death of someone close to them without being able to intervene. So too, the idea of self-compassion is central to Buddhist thought which invites us to adopt a detached perspective on ourselves, to see ourselves not as standing apart from the messy and contingent nexus of causes but as one part of it.

I do not think that this necessarily undermines Winch's insight that remorse involves a conception of one as related to one's actions in an especially tight way; that my actions, and my attitudes towards them, reveal my character, that which I essentially am. Winch perhaps has in mind scripture: 'ye shall know them by their fruits' (Matthew 7:16). However, reflections on these alternative possibilities might shake our confidence in the inexorability of this conception of the self and of the conception of morality which reinforces it. The concept of remorse builds on and reinforces a conception of the individual, and if such individualism is not necessary then we may ask whether it is desirable, or, alternatively, whether the image of the remorseful wrongdoer (like the repenting sinner on which it is modeled) does as much harm as good.

Michael Campbell