The notion of repentance is a key notion in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ethics, and in other views that have been inspired by these traditions. The central idea is that someone who has done wrong should go through a progression of stages -- the second stage should result from the first, the third from the second, and the fourth from the third. The first stage is the recognition of one’s wrongdoing – it is to understand that one has done wrong, what is wrong about it, and how it harms others and oneself. It includes accepting that one was the agent of wrongdoing, by contrast, for example, with believing that the act was merely a reflexive response to what someone else did. The second stage - remorse, regret, or guilt -- is a kind of emotional response that should result from recognition of one’s wrongdoing. It involves at least pain or sadness that one has done wrong. The third stage, by contrast with the first two, is forward-looking, and it involves an effort of the will. It is, at root, a commitment to refrain from the sort of wrongdoing in question, for the reason that one wants instead to do what is right. The fourth stage is restoration -- motivated by this commitment to change, one aims to restore what one has damaged. For example, to restore damaged relationships, one might be moved to confession, and sometimes also to restitution.
My question is about the third stage, which involves the will. A problem here is that often morally deficient personality characteristics (such as those we associate with Eddy’s title) seem to be resistant to the effort of will, as does the expression of these personality characteristics in action. In fact, it seems that often, given these personality characteristics, no effort of will can significantly alter these characteristics, nor can it prevent, at some time or other, their expression in action. According to Stoic ethics, every rational, mature, non-intoxicated human being can always, by effort of will, prevent such personality characteristics from being expressed in action. Whether this is so is clearly an empirical issue, but from my observations, I would say that most such human beings are on occasion unable to do so.
At the same time, it seems to me that our practice of reprimand (by, for example, the use of the term in Eddy’s title), presupposes that effort of will can have the effects at issue. But our evidence for the truth of this presupposition is slim -- and this is independent of the sorts of considerations that support hard determinism or hard incompatibilism. One might reply that even if it is false, we might justify expressing this presupposition in our practice because there is always a significant epistemic possibility that an effort of the will on the part of the agent could alter the personality characteristics, or could prevent the bad behavior. Still, it seems that the possibility of alteration or prevention of this sort is often not a good bet (especially after character is well-formed). So should our practice of reprimand be altered to reflect the dubiousness of the presupposition?