Mays Business School
Bottom Line Ethics
7Apr/1078

Unintended consequences

I have been reading a very interesting book by philosopher Daryl Koehn on thinking and acting ethically in a world of unintended consequences. She refers to unintended consequences as a “live dragon” based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s warning, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

And yet unintended consequences are left out of our moral calculations all the time. As an auditor, I find it humorous to watch the Congressional Budget Office trying to predict the impact of Congressional bills, most recently the health care bill. Since the CBO is constrained to use a certain set of assumptions, and since those assumptions are largely known to Congressional staff, key provisions of bills are structured so that they will pass muster under CBO provisions. But these estimates almost never represent reality, largely because they do not take into account the changes in behavior that will rationally take place once a law is implemented.

Koehn divides unintended consequences into those that are foreseeable and those that are unforeseeable. Many states that are going bankrupt are magically discovering that public employee pensions are having a huge impact on their deficits. It is not just that these pensions are generous, but that the provisions are set up so that the annuity received in retirement is based on the last few years’ average salary. Predictably, public servants are working almost impossibly high levels of overtime in their last few years, pumping their retirement payments sometimes above what their actual annual salaries were. This is a perfectly predictable unintended consequence of structuring pension plans this way.

Other consequences are not so easy to predict. Koehn gives the example of mosquito nets that were donated to Zambia to reduce the spread of malaria. Instead, villagers sowed the nets together to make large fishing nets, resulting in overfishing that will likely lead to longer-term hunger for Zambians.

When we make ethical decisions, it is tempting to think short-term, and to constrain our minds in terms of potential unintended consequences. There are several reasons for this. First, short-term consequences are the most available to us mentally; they are the easiest to picture. Second, we may actually be able to picture some short-term unintended consequences that we could include in our calculation; this is less likely to be true for long-term unintended consequences. Third, short-term calculations are the easiest to do, and they are the most likely part of the total calculation to be accurate.

I have experienced unintended consequences of my own decisions. I have sometimes made decisions for noble reasons and had a string of bad outcomes as a result. Of course, I can learn and benefit from these outcomes, but it does not necessarily follow that a well intended decision will result in good outcomes. And, in my life, that has led to disappointment.

Someone I know recently decided to leave his wife and change the course of his life dramatically. Besides the expected outcomes of a decision like that, that family’s life is raining unintended consequences, and likely will for many years to come.

I would be interested to know what you think on this issue. Have you experienced unintended consequences that have dramatically impacted your life? Is my friend responsible for all the unintended consequences resulting from his decision?

Comments (78) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I think the point you make about the health care bill is insightful. Congress “calculates the costs” of implementing a free universal health care system like this, but fails to realize the basic changes which will certainly take place. When going to the doctor is on Uncle Sam, why not go if your tummy aches or you have a head ache.

    To your question, yes your friend is responsible. If you leave your family, you have to know that there will be consequences. It is a choice that our freedom allows us to make, but like many other choices is not one that should be made without a great deal of contemplation about consequences.

  2. I think the topic of unintended consequences is quite interesting. One thing I relate to this topic, is the notion that you cannot control what other people do, so no matter what the situation, as long as other people are involved, you can never be quite sure of the results. Just because you have a noble plan of action does not mean that the intended consequences will result, variables that are out of our control may very well dictate the situation. As Mr. Derrett said in his presentation, bad things can happen to good people. Even if we are noble individuals, we are not immune from harm.

    On the topic of your friend, I do think he is mostly responsible for the unintended consequences. Whether this particular action will benefit himself and his family in the long run is unknown, but it is known that he was the one to actually take action, and this action is what caused the consequences. As you mentioned in this blog, we often cater towards short-term benefits while remaining ignorant to the long-term harm. If your friend is confident that his marriage and previous career path was filled with negatives, then the decision could be seen as an investment for the future. Only he knows the true story. All in all, taking action in any facet of life usually causes consequences, it is up to us to seek wisdom and see the big picture as we look to avoid harmful unintended consequences.

  3. Oh man, this is the good stuff! There are so many things I could comment on, but due to my inability to organize my thoughts well I am just going to spit stuff out. I’m sure I have experienced unintended consequences in my life, however one incident that did not happen to me personally comes to mind.

    A couple of years ago in California, a group of co-workers were driving in a car together. They got into an accident, and the car caught on fire. I believe a female was either trapted or couldn’t get out without help, so one of the co-workers saved her from THE CAR THAT WAS ON FIRE. I believe she ended up getting several injured due to the accident, but the part that just makes me smile at humanity is she sued the individual who pulled her out of the car and after tons of legal battles SHE WON!

    Now, let’s talk about the unintended consequence in this situation. I can imagine what was going through the savior…I mean co-workers mind when he made his decision TO RISK HIS LIFE and SAVE THIS PERSON. It probably was along the lines of “Hmmm, she’s going to be barbecue or I could go on save her…..choices……okay, I will save her life this time.” I believe the unintended consequence of his choice was being sued, being punished, for his actions. Please forgive my bias, but I truly would like to hear other people’s thoughts on this particular scenario, as I am sure a similar situation has happened before.

    Before I open that can of worms, I will stop and respond to the topic of your particular friend. I think there will certainly be some unintended consequences that he is responsible for. Also, there is a case to be made that he might not be responsible for SOME of the unintended consequences. And I hope to give examples of these situations someday, however my “A” key just broke off on my keyboard (it still works, it just feels strange hitting it with no key there) so I think I shall leave it at that….apologies.

  4. I think this blog is very interesting. I think that though I like your call to consider more heavily unintended consequences, it can be hard to determine what some will be. I think this discussion has to do with the calculations we make based on consequences and the what we are leaving out bit of that. Also, though the health care bill may cost more than predicted so do most other bills that are signed in. The health care is also not going to be free. People have to pay into the program, they just don’t have to pay the full amount if they can’t afford it. So really the tummy ache would not be on just Uncle Sam, but also on the patient.

    I agree with the above comments that your friend is responsible for these consequences. My parents are divorced and I know that their choosing themselves has had consequences on me that they may have not seen coming.

  5. I think you should not be responsible for the unforeseeable unintended consequences. Like your example about the mosquito nets donated to Zhambians, the purpose of the net was to prevent malaria but the recipients used it as fish nets instead. It is unfortunate that the nets were used for unintended purposes, but in no way should the donator be responsible for those good intentions.

    Short-term calculations are much easier to calculate and predict, wherever long-term consequences are tougher due to unexpected consequences that can arise with time.

    I’ve had an unintended consequence somewhat recently. I thought that I would continue receiving my financial aid refund check every semester for four straight years as an undergraduate. However, I was informed on my graduate admission letter that I will be classify as a graduate student in the current Spring semester which is a semester earlier than what I had expected. Because of this, I did not receive any financial aid this semester which has set me back a bit financially.

  6. I would like to add to the list of reasons of why we stumble across unintended consequences. Sometimes it may occur because subconsciously we have already made a decision on what we would like to do. I know I am guilty of this. For instance lets say one day I just do not feel like going into work instead of thinking about the consequence thoroughly, I might just say to myself “the worst thing that could happen is they are a little short staffed today and they will give me little guilt trip”. Basically our rationalization of our decisions might blind us in most of the consequences that might unfold.

    As for your friend I do not claim to know much about marriage. However, the family problems that have unravelled from his decision are definitely his responsibility. Yet if he were to stay with his wife for the sake of the children so to speak there may have been even worse consequence that could have come from that further on down the road. Once it become evident to the family that there are issues with their parent’s marriage. His children might feel betrayed as if all of their family memories were a fraud or they might feel responsible for their parents unhappiness for all those years.

  7. Joe Lawton, I just have to say it’s awesome that you are so into this that you are breaking the “a” key on your computer! I guess you would have to say it was _wesome! And let me make this very clear–if my car is on fire, I will not sue you.

  8. Every decision I have made in the past and every decision I make in the future will have unintended consequences. Even if I sit down and try to think of all the consequence one of my decisions will bring upon, I would not be able to think every single consequence. I agree that making short-term ethical or any other decision easier to make and be more accurate. There might be less unintended consequences with these decisions. It is more difficult to make an accurate calculation if it is at some point in the future. There are more variables to account for and it is difficult to make the actual calculation.

    The latest unintended consequence happened during Easter. When I decided to attend A&M I knew that it was a good decision. Unfortunately this past Easter I thought otherwise. This past Easter was the first Easter I did not spend with my family. I would have to drive 7 hours just to get home. I told my parents I was not going to be able to go. I was sad I didn’t spend a very important holiday with my family.

    As for your friend, I do not think he is the only one responsible to for all the unintended consequences. Sometimes it takes two to make something work or not to work. And the consequences are the responsibility of both. I am not excusing him but I do sympathize. Sometimes letting go is better than staying and not being happy.

  9. I think the majority of “unintended consequences” stem from people not giving their decisions enough consideration before they make them. Also, I think today’s society is so focused on immediate gratification that most people do bother to think how their decisions will affect other people and play out in the long run, it’s all about what can this get me right here right now. Obviously, this is not always the case and someone above had a good point that we cannot control other people and that inevitably leads to unintended consequences. Also, we clearly cannot foresee every possible outcome when making decision and I know I myself have had my share of unintedned consequences, but for the most part I think alot of these could be avoided by simply thinking through both sides of decisions before acting.

    As far as your friend, I believe he is responsible for any unintended consequences of his decision. Other people never see the full story of a divorce but even though the intention may not be to cause pain, it is going to regardless and it is the direct result of choices that were made.

  10. I don’t want to overplay the Tiger Woods saga, but in light of the Masters tournament this weekend, but it is applicable with this particular topic. For years, Tiger did a better job than any other high profile athlete by staying out of the spotlight and living a very quiet private life. He was rarely ever in the headlines for any reason other than golf. He never really had to experience the press invading his private life.

    This may have contributed to the unforeseen consequences from his actions, but not by much. While he may not have realized that espn and every other major news station would be dedicated to following the story, he should have been able to foresee the potential outcomes of his actions. The multiple people involved alone over the short time period must have weighed on his analysis of the ultimate consequences. He had to have known his wife would be devastated in the end, which should have been more than enough of a negative outcome to restrain his behavior. No matter how continues to respond after the situation, his private life will forever be tarnished by these actions.

    I think people are responsible for unintended consequences in the major decisions of their lives. I believe these decisions that affect their personal life should only be made after one assesses the good and bad outcomes of various actions. However, in today’s complicated world, people are often under various pressures and stresses, and this can lead to taking action without regard to potential consequences.

  11. Michael,
    Four families come to mind as I read your piece on unintended consequences: a doctor, an accountant, an airline pilot and a teacher were the persons who didn’t properly consider the moral calculations of their actions. The doctor couldn’t repent, he was too much “in love” and he now has limited interaction with his grown sons and his grandchildren. The accountant repented, his marriage was saved and his children and grandchildren respect and honor him. The airline pilot has limited interaction with two of his kids but no relationship with the oldest who is married and has children. The teacher gave up her relationship with her children for a long period of time and consequently with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Nothing beyond a person’s relationship to God is more important than their relationship with family, just ask any retired person who would enjoy a relationship. I had a woman say to me years ago that advice, admonishment and sermons have no affect on a person who is emotionally involved in an illicit relationship, “you might as well talk to the wall.” She knew because she had been suffering for years the unintended consequences of her immoral action. I have heard the teacher say many times that she wished she could go back an do it over. The temptation becomes a game……how much can I enjoy without …….? It all has to do with our view of God and whether our “old man” was crucified or whether he is being indulged.
    Bob

  12. I have experienced numerous unintended consequences in my life, both negative and positive. While I agree with this article, I believe that we are doing ourselves a disservice to not mention the unintended positive consequences. The choices we make can unintentionally benefit someone or something without us ever knowing. As humans, we focus more on the positive consequences of our decisions, thus meaning that our choices result in fewer unintended positive consequences and more unintended negative consequences.

    I do believe your friend is responsible for his unintended negative consequences. We are responsible for all decisions we make. We readily accept praise and assume full responsibility for unintended positive consequences; however, we often cowardly deny responsibility when our decisions result in unintended negative consequences. I do not believe that the outcome of our decision should dictate the amount of responsibility we assume.

  13. Unintended Consequences. I do agree with the above comment that there are also positive unintended consequences. If each of us were able to make decisions based on the good consequences and not always “what’s the worst that can go wrong” mentality, the world we live in would be in a better place. Especially as college students, we face many challenges that tend to create unintended consequences, such as lifetime mark of a DWI or accidental pregnancy. If we strived to have solid morals and values to stand by, then maybe more positive unintended consequences would come our way.

    In the case of your friend, I believe he is responsible. Whether he is for “ALL” of them, I cannot say because I don’t really know the facts of the situation. Divorce is to me the “live dragon” your author writes about that continues to breathe fire upon all those involved. Although my parents are happily married, my three younger girl cousins still to this day struggle with the effects of the divorce that was brought upon by their dad years ago. It changes peoples lives dramatically and sometimes creates a younger generation in fear of marriage or even worse an excuse to divorce their spouse, which is definitely negative unintended consequences.

  14. Colby, I’m sorry for what your cousins have been through, and I have been told similar things many times through the years. Thanks a lot for your comment.

  15. While I agree short-term consequences are the the easiest to consider in calculating a decision, I think long-term consequences are where we should put most of our thought into, simply for the reason their outcomes are not as clear yet can have larger impact. In the case of your friend getting a divorce, I believe it is one of the saddest but most accepted actions in our culture with over 50% of marriages ending in divorce. The long-term unintended consequences are lost when people decide for divorce with the most difficult unintended consequences falling on the children.

    Is your friend responsible for the unintended consequences? – I think its difficult to say yes or no while looking at the situation in isolation as there could be a number of other outside factors affecting the situation. With that said, I think you need to seriously consider the unintended consequences and be prepared to accept responsibility for them.

  16. Before reading this article and its comments, I had the idea in my mind that each one of us is responsible for our own actions, including unforeseen and unintended consequences. However, I can now see that it all just depends on the situation. It would be unfair for me to think that the donator of the nets given to Zambia is responsible for the villagers’ actions. It is not the donator’s fault that the villagers were going to act that way. Another example is the one Joe Lawton commented on. There was no way to know that the guy saving the girl’s life was going to end up being punished. He just risked his life saving someone else. How was he to know that the psycho person being saved was going to end up stabbing him on the back? This was an extremely unforeseen and unintended consequence of his actions, and he shouldn’t be held responsible for it. Examples like these just prove that it all depends on the situation and what kind of consequences were are talking about.

    I’m sure the husband that is leaving his wife is going to be responsible for many bad consequences that come along with a divorce. However, I don’t know what his current situation with his wife and family is. Maybe it has gotten to the point where the couple is not able to have a decent conversation without fighting and yelling. A bad relationship with his wife might end up being worse for the kids. Whatever decision he chooses will have unexpected consequences. So it would be unfair to put all the blame on him. Again, only he and his family would know what is best for them.

  17. When it comes to unintended consequences, I think you can look at it from a third perspective. As Koehn explains, there are those that are foreseeable, and those that are unforeseeable. I would make the argument that there are also unintended consequences that are foreseeable, but become unforeseeable through justification by the person/people who are making the decisions. For example, most people would say that the massive damage of the financial crisis was unforeseeable. Many agree that lending was out of hand, ratings agencies were not doing their jobs, etc., but that is no excuse for not preparing for a worst case scenario. I think it is very clear that if people had practiced their jobs in a more diligent manner and made external unforeseeable events foreseeable (basically by always thinking of a cataclysmic event in the back of their minds), the recession would not have been as deep as what we are experiencing. Instead, we had people all across the world in many ways acting in their own best interests because they justified to themselves that a small unethical practice here or there would not have a large impact in the grand scheme of things. SImply, sometimes we have those people who say, “Nobody could have ever seen that coming” but that may not always be the case.

    With regard to your friend, I definitely do not agree with the way he went about his separation from his family. However, I do think we need to look at it from a different perspective as Purple Flower pointed out. Nobody besides his family will really know what went on in their personal lives, and only your friend himself will know what is going on in his head. Once again, he will be responsible for many of the unintended consequences purely because separation will take its toll, especially in the way he went about it. But, there also needs to be a point where this decision needs to be put behind by his family so it is not a constant deterrent keeping everyone from reaching their full potential.

  18. Yes, unintended consequences are inevitable. I think as long as your know that you made the right decision in the first place then the unintended consequences to come should be accepted. With one right decision, you can only hope that it pays off in the long run. I recently chose to attend graduate school outside of College Station. I weighed the consequences of being in a new place, not knowing anyone, and attending a new school. The unintended consequences are yet to come, but I know that whatever they will be I will accept because the decision of leaving College Station is right for me.

    I absolutely think your friend is responsible for the consequences. He will need to accept what he brought upon himself. My dad made the same decision as your friend and I do not think he was prepared for the consequences, intended or not.

  19. It seems like from this blog entry and the numerous comments that we can all agree that many decisions will have unintended consequences. I think that this makes a strong argument for not relying only on calculating consequences when making a decision. Although I don’t know the friend’s particular situation, I believe that in a marriage the duty to uphold the sacred covenant that you make with each other should override whatever good consequences one thinks might occur from divorce. I think this idea also translates to one’s professional life. Confronting a co-worker or client regarding an ethical issue can definitely lead to unintended consequences, but that does not mean that the issue should be ignored.

  20. I totally agree with Ethical Ninja that you can’t control what other people do and that you will not always get your intended consequences when other people are involved. You can do your best to try to calculate all the consequences but more than likely you will have unintended consequences arise. You can’t predict how every person will handle every situation. Something that seems totally reasonable to you can be absurd to others. I just went to a very interesting presentation last night given by Frank Turek over his book “I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST.” The audience for this presentation was a mix of all religions but mostly consisted of Christians and Atheist. The intended consequence from this presentation was that there would be a heated debate after the presentation was over. And as calculated it took place. I really enjoyed the presentation and it all made perfect sense to me, but on the other hand, two guys sitting near me, who were Atheist, became very irritated with the presentation. They tried to find anything and everything that was wrong in their opinion so that they could argue about it. To me, it is so intriguing how people can have totally different perspectives when they hear the exact same message.

    Ok, back to unintended consequences. I once sent a text message to a good friend because I was irritated about something. Originally I didn’t think much of it and I didn’t mean to be mean in it, I just wanted him to know that I was frustrated about something. He ended up taking it very badly and we completely lost our friendship over it. I had no idea one small text message could end things between us so quickly. I learned from this that I should never text message someone about a problem because more than likely they will not take it the way you mean it. From this experience I definitely added this possibility to my calculation of consequences of text messaging.

    As for your friend, I think he is somewhat responsible for the unintended consequences just because they never would have happened if he hadn’t done what he did. I definitely don’t think he is responsible for everything though. The other people involved hold some responsibility too. It is almost impossible to know all the outcomes that could happen from a situation. I will pray for him and his family as they go through these hard times.

  21. lynn11, thanks for your comments. Wow, text messages can be problematic, can’t they? This crosses over to the blog on handling disappointment. Text messages and e-mails dissolve relationships right and left. It is a challenge for me to step back and not send that message that is burning in my fingertips. I have had to apologize more than once for doing it.

  22. Several years ago, the government decided to put child-proof caps on all medicine to keep children safe.
    Unfortunately, what they failed to consider is that the people who use medicine the most are the elderly. As a result, elderly people, who also were unable to open the child-proof caps, were getting their children or neighbors to open the medicine and not putting the top back on, sometimes even placing the pills in dishes. The unintended consequence was that children were getting into medicine more than ever before because they would go and visit grandma or whoever and see what appeared to them as candy sitting out around the house.

    I’ll agree that people with good intentions should be given grace when it comes to unforeseeable unintended consequences. The question is what is the threshold for foreseeability? Should the government have foreseen that the elderly would have trouble with the child-proof caps and taken that into consideration before creating legislation?

  23. One of the aspects that caught my attention more than others was the comment that read, “do not take into account the changes in behavior that will rationally take place once a law is implemented.” I believe that one of the major reasons that people experience uninteded conseuqences in life is becuase in their calculation, they cannot accurately predict the changes in opinion, feelings, behavior, and attitude of not only other people, but also themselves. They forget that people are not constant.

    Another par of this article that I particularly liked is the argument stating that people in general make calculations based on short-term expectectations or events. If we look at our culture as a whole, I believe it is relatvely simple to argue that we are a “immediate satisfaction” based culture. When we are hungy we like to either drive through some resturaunt rahter than cooking, order our textbooks offline because then we won’t have to drive to a store, and so on. It is in our own culture that the faster things are the better. This is not necessarily the best mind-set to have in making decisions that have long-term consequences. Although long-term consequences are much harder to calculate (for many reasons; one of which is discussed above in my comment), I think it is worth recognizing that our immediate reaction is to consider the quickest short term response and to believe this is obviously the best. However, history can show that this is not the case.

  24. I waited several minutes after reading this before coming back to post a response, and it paid off. I appreciate that abailey mentioned grace because it is such a key player in my life and has, more than once, provided both joyful and trying outcomes I couldn’t have calculated or intended with all my might.

    I choose to be grateful for unintended consequences because they are full of infinitely more possibilities than anything I could dream up alone. If we could predict and control everything, wouldn’t we be something other than human? Would we need or have any interest in one another as people if we didn’t need help managing all of the unintended consequences? The conundrums that drives us to our wits’ end are often the connection points to our most valuable relationships. What a gift, that we are not thrown to Earth alone, doomed to work out the shortcomings of our humanity alone! Our weakness of character, when honestly realized and addressed, can become our strength as co-strugglers with one another toward righteousness.

    While it may seem that your friend’s actions are dooming those around him to negative aftermath, he is just one part of a larger reality that ends in the triumph of a good God over human shortcomings. Perhaps his children will be more understanding people, able to share empathy with someone else who is struggling with something similar, now or in the future. Perhaps watching his family’s struggle will motivate someone else in his circle of friends to work out his own relational problems. Or, perhaps, the whole situation will only mark a time when his family remembers that everyone–not just a distant, unknown “them” or “they”–experiences trying times that reveal human imperfections. And in that, they can develop a rare, valuable graciousness that the dog-eat-dog world might never understand.

    Experiences themselves are not charged with ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They simply exist and are replete with opportunities–either to be used as burdens on one’s shoulders or stepping stones toward a future better, richer and more beautiful than could be realized without them. And it’s every person’s choice how he or she decides to use experiences.

    Needless to say, I value this and other topics you raise–keep writing!

  25. Joe,

    I’m totally agreeing with you about that car fire. You would never ever think that since you risked your own life to pull someone out of a burning car that you would end up getting sued for it. I remember in driver’s ed, they would always tell us to never try and help anyone that got in a wreck or was hurt because we WOULD end up getting sued. Those are definitely sad unintended consequences that are not very foreseeable. I guess it is kind of like what Dr. Shaub said about people being bad calculators. It is impossible to be able to see all the outcomes and consequences that couls possibly come out of a situation. One of the sad things that a couple people have mentioned is that even good intentions can lead to unintended bad outcomes.

  26. When you want to talk about untended consequences, I think it is an important point that you have made, Dr Shaub (and others), that in general people are really bad predictors of conseqences. However, I feel that at the end of the day others will judge your decisions based on the outcomes both intended and unintended. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where people could be judged based on their intentions or motivations? Of course that won’t happen because of the fact that it is much more difficult to try and determine motive compared to just looking to the results. At the end of the day, the person you have to deal with is yourself. Be the judge of your own motivations, and things you cannot control you will have to let go, and learn from it.

  27. I’m really enjoying the exchange of ideas in the posts above. You are unfolding complexities to the issue that are difficult to get to in a five-minute conversation. There are also commonalities coming out that a lot of people seem to agree on. That was a great example, abailey, and obviously triggered quality responses. I am really impressed by the level of discussion.

  28. The question of taking responsibility for unintended consequences is definitely an area that I would consider both gray and dependent on the situation. We experience unintended consequences daily, as there is no way to completely predict what the future has in store for us. We’ve all heard that hindsight is 20/20; however, I believe that we if we spend a significant time thinking and considering possible consequences, we can alleviate some, not all, of the unfortunate consequences.

    The mosquito nets in Zambia for instance- I believe that it is close to impossible to see the hunger issues that resulted from giving nets to the people of Zambia. This is a situation in which there was no possible way to alleviate the consequences.

    A situation, in which you have more control over, such as leaving your spouse, is another story. I don’t want to pass judgment on someone for the consequences, that at the time, he would not be able to fathom and for a situation I have never been in and don’t know about. However, I strongly feel that we should take ownership and responsibility for our actions and decisions. Yes, it is easy to say that if he did not end his marriage, certain things would not have happened. But is everything that happened attributed solely to him? I think that is an extreme statement to make and a question in which I don’t know the answer.

    Another perspective of the issue could be, instead of considering the consequence of leaving your spouse; he could have focused on the consequences of marriage. At that point in time, he obviously had plenty of reasons to marry his wife, enough reasons to make a life-long promise of devotion. If those reasons were genuine, sincere, and thought-out, then in essence, the question of leaving his wife would have never come into play. I will say that in my opinion, spending more time focusing on his initial life-altering decision of marriage would have possibly alleviated the unfortunate consequences he is facing now.

    I hope the best for your friend and his family as they are undergoing this difficult time. Thanks for all of your insight, Dr. Shaub!

  29. It is my belief that a person should only be held accountable for those unintended consequences that are reasonably foreseeable. The world we live in is a complex system with an infinite number of possible combinations of actions that cannot be accounted for by even the most sophisticated mathematical model. According to the NYU economist Roy Radner, such a model would take infinite computing power. This makes unintended consequences practically a guaranteed result for any action.

    If even the world’s most powerful supercomputer remains helpless in a calculation of this sort, we can hardly expect human beings to fare better. Instead, I believe it most just to hold people accountable only for consequences which a reasonable person could foresee as being at least remotely likely.

  30. Tess, I think you make a very important distinction, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness toward my friend’s situation. Madeline, yours is the kind of insightful comment I have come to expect from you. I appreciate you tying the analysis to justice considerations as well. Thanks.

  31. I believe the distinction between foreseeable and unforeseeable is rather important for unintended consequences. I think when it comes to laying blame or determining who is responsible, that distinction helps.

    In my opinion the fact that the consequences are unintended helps lessen the blow. At least in my mind, the fact that your friend did not intend to for these things to happen to his family helps, slightly. In comparison to someone who sets out with malicious intentions, he did not want his kids to go through the pain that they are probably dealing with.

    On the other hand, I think the foresee-ability of the situation amplifies the responsibility. It is almost inevitable that divorce will affect children for the rest of their lives. There is a laundry list of unintended consequences that are quite foreseeable when it comes to divorce.

    When it comes to unforeseeable unintended consequences, I find it hard to label someone as responsible. These are the things that you never thought would happen, and you never wanted them to happen. There is just no way of adding these into your calculations, so they in no way influenced the decision you made.

  32. I think that these unintended consequences have been seen through every speaker that we have had so far. First, all of them said that they had not seen what the consequences were and they would have never thought them to be so severe. Larry Derrett from Enron really put an interesting twist on things saying that everyone was doing it and that these off the balance sheet transactions were normal. This is crazy to me because in today’s business world, everyone knows this is completely wrong. Both Josh and Diane from last week’s Scared Straight Presentation never considered jail time as being one of their consequences. Everyone rationalized it in their head to be something else. So can we really blame them for not seeing them?

    This may be the same for your friend that left his wife. Did he really look ahead and see the long-term consequences or did he use short-term judgment and should he be held responsible? Yes, I believe that him and all of these other people should be held responsible. For him, he has lived in the world for 30+ years and has probably seen a divorce. He should have known the consequences and did he even try to talk and work things out? It seems that a common thing between the speakers and him is that they were not talking to someone. Often times, it is hard to see our own flaws and bad decisions. The other day, I needed someone to tell me to go to the doctor because I was being stubborn about it and it turns out I had bronchitis and needed an antibiotic. Little things in life to the biggest decisions need discussion from more than just your own brain. Perhaps this can lead to less “unintended consequences” and more rational and ethical decision making.

  33. This blog reminds me of “the butterfly effect” in that every action, no matter how small, can have a huge impact on the rest of the world. Such is the case with the story of the mosquito nets–who could have ever imagined that hunger in the region would occur from this good deed? It is my opinion that it is impossible to calculate every consequence of every situation and thus, people cannot be held responsible for unforseeable consequences. I totally agree with Madeline’s notion that “it (is) most just to hold people accountable only for consequences which a reasonable person could foresee as being at least remotely likely.”

  34. Today I experienced one of those eerie events that made me think of this topic. While on my way to campus I got into my car when I decided to randomly look in my back seat for a coupon I had misplaced. After a few seconds I blew it off and continued on my way to WCL. About half way there I was beginning to go through an intersection when a truck ran the stop sign and almost crashed into my car. While I sat there thinking back on the events, if I hadn’t have taken those 3 seconds to look back for that coupon I would have for sure been hit dead on by the truck. Although this wasn’t an example of a lifelong decision and it out comes, it does portray unintended consequences in minute form. I think there are definitely situations where we should be held accountable for all of the consequences, but I think for every decision we make there will always be consequences that we would never have dreamed of in a million years.

  35. I had two different thoughts go through my mind while reading this blog. First, I was agreeing and acknowledging what you said about unintended consequences and our short-term mindset. I see it very clearly everywhere in life, including my own, where people focus on the short-term while making decisions. I believe that most things are better looked at in the long-term , and if we try and keep in mind what will happen tomorrow and not just today, this will lead us to potentially better choices.

    My second thought came after I had finished reading the entire post, and it was a question of whether we can truly be held accountable for all the unintended consequences that are a result of our decisions, especially decisions made as a short term solution. If this were true, would anyone actually ever make a decision? If we sat around all day analyzing possible choices and all the consequences they could lead to, we would never be able to make a decision. As long as the person is making the choice with the best intentions possible and is not doing anything negative as a means to a good end, I am not sure if we can hold them accountable. Obviously, if a negative consequence does occur, it needs to be dealt with, but not by negatively looking towards the decision maker.

  36. While I think that it is definitely smart to try and predict the consequences of our decisions, I think it would be a waste of time to try and retroactively think about the consequences that different past decisions would have resulted in. For example, recently we all had to decide on a firm that we would do our internship with. For most of us, it came down to a decision between more than one firm. No matter which firm we chose, there are going to be countless unforseen consequences both good and bad. I don’t think it would make sense to go back and think about what would have been if we had chosen differently. Rather, it is important to take the current circumstances and try to make the best of them.

  37. I think the idea of who should be responsible for unintended consequences is definitely one where there is no right or wrong answers. I know that I have made many decisions for which I have face unintended consequences both positive and negative. In my opinion I believe we should be held responsible for all unintended consequences that can be traced clearly back to us.

    For example in the case of a corporation polluting. This polluting in many cases has led to polluted water which has effected the ecosystem and has effected many areas water supplies. What the company should be liable for is a grey area which has been taken up in the court. In terms of our everyday lives I think each one of us should be concious of the impact our choices can make both on our life and on other people’s lives. My real question is whether individuals should be held responsible for unintended consequences that impact the companies they work with even if their original intention was well founded and back by others around them in the company?

  38. To answer the question regarding responsibility for unintended consequences, a distinction should be made between “unintended” and “unforeseeable.” Take the health care bill (and please excuse my classical liberal leanings). Its proponents did not intend to reduce the quantity of health care provided, but rather to increase the number of insured persons. However, it was not difficult to foresee a drop in the output of health care. A study of the British system conducted between 1965 and 1973 revealed an 11 percent decrease in hospital beds occupied, despite a 28 percent increase in staffs. For those tempted to argue that the decrease was due to better care and therefore a decrease in sick patients needing beds, consider that the waiting list for beds was around 600,000 people during this time period. It is also useful to note that fewer hospitals existed 30 years after Britain instituted national health care than existed before its institution, and that a third of all graduating doctors began to leave the country each year. A similar story can be told for Canada. Here is the point: in America’s case, the intention may not be to reduce the amount of health care offered, but that doesn’t mean the result in unforeseeable. An unforeseeable consequence can be forgiven, but an unintended consequence is not justification for acquittal in and of itself.

  39. In my opinion, the inevitability of unintended consequences is the danger in adopting a purely consequentialist decision-making approach. No matter how long you prepare for a decision or how lengthy your list of pros and cons becomes, it is virtually impossible to consider every possible person, place, or thing that could be impacted by your decision. However, I’ve found that asking advice from others and sharing my pros & cons lists has improved my ability to predict unintended consequences. Gaining from others’ perspectives can help minimize (but not eliminate) the number of unforeseen consequences and thus improve our calculations.

    In response to your friend’s situation, a part of me thinks it is unfair to hold him entirely responsible for ALL the unintended, unforeseeable consequences of his decision. Perhaps if he would have known about all of these unintended results, he would have made a different decision. Can we really blame him for not being completely omniscient? On the other hand, the deontologist in me argues that by ending his marriage he breached his duty to his wife and should be held responsible for any of the consequences that result. These consequences, though unintended, would probably not have happened if he hadn’t left.

  40. Unintended consquences is a very interesting topic to me. I have experienced several situations in my life where unintended consequences have had some sort of dramatic effect on me. However, I can look back on these situations where I know that I made the right choice to begin with and see where an important lesson in my life was learned and how I grew from the consequences that I was going through. When you make the correct and ethical decisions, the unintended consequences are a little easier to go through. In my life, even though the unintended consequences were difficult at the time, I was able to go through them and tackle them head on because I knew in my heart that I had taken the right course of action to begin with. Now when you make a decision that you know is wrong it isn’t as easy to suffer the reprocussions. However, when I suffer the consequences of an incorrect choice I find that it’s easier if you take responsibilty for that choice and try to correct it. Often times a lot of good lessons in my life have been learned by taking responsibility for my actions and many times I was able to turn a wrong decision into a positive outcome in the end.

    In the case of your friend that left his family and is now suffering these unintended consequences, I do feel that he is responsible. I do realize that I do not know the entire situation and also my opinion might be a little biased because I’m a female, but I cannot possibly see how leaving your family could ever be the right choice. Now if there was abuse in the household or his wife had had an affiar, then I feel that it would be the correct decision to leave, but to leave your family on reasons of your own self interest is completely wrong in my eyes. When you get married you each say your vows and say for better or worse. It seems to me that he completely missed the point of those vows that he made many years ago. The unintended consequences that he is going through now are not going to be easy ones because he knows deep down that the decision to leave his family was not the correct one. What’s even worse for him is that they people that he loves are having to go through these consequences as well. It’s one thing for a person to suffer the uninteded consequences of a wrong decision that they made, but to watch the people that you love hurt is because of something you did is one of the worst feelings in the world.

  41. I believe that unintended consequences come with every decision we make and that it is impossible to fathom all of the possible consequences. Even when we think we have taken enough time to contemplate the decision thoroughly and have thought of every possible consequence, most likely we have not considered unintended consequences. Sometimes I think we fail to think of the worst that could possibly happen because we don’t want to even consider the possibility that could end up being a reality. In the Scared Straight presentation, they thought about a lot of the consequences but never thought of the harsh reality of being faced with criminal charges and going to jail.

    In regard to your friend’s divorce, I do not think he can be held solely responsible for all the unintended consequences in the future. Yes he is responsible but probably not for all, but I cannot necessary pass judgment on him since I do not know the full story. However, his children will most likely hold him responsible for leaving them which will probably damage his relationship with them. Hopefully it will not come down to that. I have a friend whose parents divorced when he was young and both of his parents remarried and ended up getting divorced and repeated this vicious cycle a few times. It has definitely let him permanently scared about long term relationships and even trying to consider the possibility of marriage. His parents probably did not consider this cycle of marriage and divorce to have such an impact on one of their children. I think it all come down to the fact that people are bad calculators as Dr. Shaub said.

  42. Yes, my family has experienced unintended consequences to good decisions. For example, when my dad decide to the his partnership at PwC to become the executive pastor had a church we had started a few years ago, he thought (and still does think) it was the right thing to do because it is what God was calling him to do. However, the decision had unintended consequences. We were living in Louisiana at the time and the church was back in League City, Texas (outside of Houston). So, he thought we could just sell our house and move to League City, fairly easily. However, that was not the case. It took 18 months for our beautiful, rather large house in a developing part of Louisiana to sell. During this time, we had to use a lot of money from savings to pay the mortgage on our house and rent for an apartment in League City. This was an unintended consequence to a good decision. However, my dad doesn’t look at it like that. He thinks of it as a learning experience that God gave our family. That is to learn how to fully trust in God, even when things aren’t going well.

    So, to answer your question, I wouldn’t think of it as who is responsible or should he have calculated the consequence. Rather, if you make decision based on duties or principles (ex: doing what God tells you to do) then there are no unintended bad consequences, because you never calculated the consequences in the first place.

  43. I think one should always be held accountable for their actions whether the outcome is good or bad. With respect to that, I would say that your friend should definitely be held accountable for what he has done, and he should face the repercussions of his actions. I think the main reason many consequences are left out and over-looked is because we don’t think long and hard enough about the outside effects it will have on others. Many times we just make quick decisions that will be most pleasurable to us at the time. Just think how many times as a kid you did dumb things and they came back to kick you in the butt; for me that would be an entire novel of events to read. Fortunately, as we get older and mature, we begin to slow down and think about the consequences that we will experience, but we still ultimately continue to make bad decisions because we focus to much on how it will benefit us and not enough on how it will impact others.

    Will we ever be able to stop unintended consequences? I sure don’t know the answer to that question, but I do feel we can do a lot better job of minimizing those consequences just by taking a step back and focusing our attention on others rather than ourselves.

  44. I think one of the major problems with society today is the fact that, as you’ve said in class, people are bad consequence calculators. We just don’t take the time to completely think things through logically and rationally. We’re quick to speak, quick to act, and quick to get angry when things don’t go the way we planned.

    I believe that this is perfectly exemplified by the circumstances surrounding the health care bill. As you said in your post, Congress has a set of assumptions that they use to predict the impact of this bill, and I agree that it would be impossible for them to predict the true consequences. Yet the bill was forcibly pushed through the Senate and the House, then immediately signed into law. Perhaps my cynical side is coming into play here, but I think it will be interesting to see how things unfold once the legislation actually gets put into practice.

  45. I really thought that Drew’s comments above were interesting. I never really thought about the fact that a lot of times people aren’t bad calculators necessarily, they just don’t calculate at all. This kind of ties in well with what came to mind for me. A few years ago I was trying to help a friend get his life back on the right track. His parents, whom he thought were very happily married, announced that they would be getting a divorce after being married for over 20 years. There were no warning signs of this, so it really threw my friend into a tail spin. He began drinking and not focusing on school. Finally, he came to me one day and told me everything and how he wanted start living the way he used to, the way he should. He was doing so well and really understanding how much better life was when you focused on the positives. I was so happy for him when one night over Easter weekend I got a phone call. It was my friend in a panic. He hadn’t gone home because of the bad situation there, and the only people that stayed in town were his friends that had been bad influences. One of them convinced him to come over and hang out because they were having a few people over to watch a game. They asked him if he would mind grabbing some beer. Not thinking it was any big deal, he agreed. Sadly, an undercover cop was setting in his car outside of the house my friend was going to. He watched my friend get out and head to the house with the case of beer. Before he was even inside, the cop came over to him and asked him for his ID. Still not thinking anything of it since he was 21, my friend shows the cop his ID. Turns out the cop had been watching the house for reports of under-age drinking. My friend ended up getting a ticket for contributing to minors because the cop had watched minors go into the house and later confirmed that they were minors after confronting my friend. In hindsight, my friend understands that he should have thought more and probably asked a few more questions before agreeing to come over and bring the beer. He wasn’t necessarily a bad calculator; he just didn’t calculate at all. I think many people fall victim to this. Think of drunk driving, this is always thought of as a bad calculation, but often probably is a lack of calculation all together. People must slow down and consider all that is at stake with each decision. More importantly, people should live by their own personal code of conduct, and this would eliminate the need to calculate.

  46. The most important take away from this blog for me is the importance of intent when making decisions. I believe there are certain variables in our life we can control and others that we cannot. While we should definitely consider obvious and possible unintended consequences of our actions, we will never have the foresight to predict all possible outcomes and resulting consequences. What is in our control is the ethical intention we have when making decisions. For example, should you consider that overfishing could result from donating mosquito nets to needy people in Zambia? Not in my opinion, it is the responsibility of the Zambia people and their government to create laws that prevent overfishing and the people who donated the nets shouldn’t shoulder the blame. If we were to consider all the possible outcomes, it would discourage people from taking action on issues they feel have ethical merit.

    An example of unintended consequences in my life occurred just last year. I have a friend who I graduated high school with who is struggling to find work because he only has a high school degree and never had the confidence to get a college education. I encouraged him to enroll at a local community college and finance his education as I did with student loans. I convinced myself that he had the ability to accomplish this goal. Last semester he told me he was giving up and there was no way I could convince him otherwise. Now he is in debt to family and friends, he has defaulted on personal loans, and has student loan obligations that will take years to repay. When convincing him to go back to school, I never even thought of this possibility even though it was probably the most likely outcome.

  47. I have experienced unintended consequences going through the interview process for internships. Last spring I got rejected by every big 4 firm I interviewed. It was really hard to stay positive, but I just grinded it out and eventually found an internship. The unintended consequence resulted in the realization that I fit in really well at a smaller firm.

    For your other question regarding your friend, I don’t think I know enough to say if your friend is responsible for all the unintended consequences. Sometimes the family is better if the parents split, but I think it is impossible to fully measure.

  48. We all have trouble calculating consequences. And as mentioned above, people are bad consequence calculators. I agree with the point made in the blog, that we think of short term outcomes instead of the whole picture. Taking this ethics class, I have realized how poorly I have been throughout the years at calculating consequences. I know we have all had those moments where we have debated on studying or going out with friends. We know that by choosing the fun choice that our grade might be reflected. We think that just one poor grade on a quiz isn’t going to hurt our grade, but that one bad quiz grade could be what keeps you from an A or B in that class. Therefore, we didn’t look at the overall picture of how that one grade was going to affect us in the long run. I now realize how important it is to think twice and make sure I caluate consequences carefully.

  49. I don’t necessarily think that people should be held accountable for unintended consequences. It depends on the situation and it depends why the person chose to do his/her action. If the motive is solely selfish, then yes, I believe that person should be held accountable. If that person thinks that its the best choice for those himself/herself and those immediately effected, then I don’t think that negative unintended consequences is their fault.

    I don’t know your friend’s situation, but once again, I think it depends on his situation and why he chose to do what he did. One of my best friends parents are still married solely because they think its what is best for the kids. They were really trying to do what was right and gave up their own happiness for their kids. As a result, my friend has grown up with his parents fighting constantly and really in an unloving household. Little do his parents know that he used to pray that they would separate even though a lot of unintended consequences would result.

  50. I don’t believe there is way to ever calculate all the consequences that a decision you make will have. It is probably near impossible. But I do find it interesting how one decision can have so many different effects in your life, some of which you probably would have never predicted. Who honestly would have thought trying to help Zambia with their maleria problem would lead to a hunger a problem? If we were able to predict everything that happens from a decision would that really make things easier. But I do believe that we do need to think through what we intend to do and do our best to predict the outcome of that decision.

  51. I completely agree with this blog! Very rarely do people think of the long term consequences of an action. I think a lot of times the government especially tries to help people out without thinking everything through at the time. Like the health care bill, when the government issued a bailout for AIG they did not think the company would turn around and spend the money lavishly on executive compensation and trips. It is very hard when you are caught up in the moment of something to fully think about everything that might happen. I know I have made decisions in my life where I ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen,” but I usually don’t think the worst will happen.

    Many times it is easy to see negative unintended consequences, but there are also positive unintended consequences. In the case of your friend, I believe that right now the unintended consequence for his family might not be very positive, but, hopefully, they will become positive.

  52. I think that our fatal flaw is even making consequence based decisions. We will never be able to fully predict or accept the consequences of our actions, but when we instead simply do what is right and what out to be done we are much more able to deal with the resulting consequences without the strain of trying to forsee them. Consequences are just that; consequential. That should be neither the basis or reason for our decisions. When the actions we take are those that are right we are almost always able to accept the aftermath.

  53. Joe Lawton – I would really like to know on what grounds she sued him?? and WON? That’s just insane to me. What about the Good Samaritan rule?

    I do believe that your friend is responsible for ALL of the consequences, intentional or not. I understand that there are some situations in which divorce really is the best option, but it is my belief that these days, our divorce rate is so outrageous because married couples would rather take the easy way out instead of the “harder right,” as one of our speakers put it. The appeal of trading it all in for something different, newer and maybe even younger is just too appealing for many in our generation to resist. Unfortunately, 50% of marriages fail today because people are making selfish choices, forgetting their vows, and looking for something better.

    Selfish choices are a necessary evil, but only made necessary by the basic fact that everyone else is making them too. If we all acted selflessly all the time, we would never have to distrust, or make choices that were clearly in our own self-interests, because others would be looking out for our interests for us. I realize I’m describing a completely fictional Utopian society, but a girl can dream, right?

  54. So this is somewhat a difficult topic to comment on, because I have so many viewpoints and so much to say, and am probably very likely to contradict myself at some point (though hopefully not). I think as far as your friend goes, peoples’ opinions are going to vary depending on if they come from a family where their parents are divorced or not. Those who’s parents are divorced may say that yes, everything is your friend’s fault, he made this horrible decision, because it is very likely that they blame their parents’ divorce for other hardships they encounter in their life. Others who are fortunate to come from non-divorced homes may cut him some slack, saying he is only responsible for the consequences he was able to foresee, assuming he took the time to calculate a variety of possible consequences of his actions before making his final decision.

    In all of this, I am wondering what some of the unintended consequences were of your friends decision? And of these unintended consequences, did the person who suffered from the consequence have an ability to overcome whatever hardship they were facing as a result of your friend’s decision? My mother had to divorce my father when I was six years old. Yes, she “had to”, because he had made the decision to choose drugs over his family. Honestly, I don’t think he even took 1 second to think of any type of consequences for his actions, including my mother finding out and divorcing him, going to jail, and ultimately, permanently damaging his relationship with me, his only daughter and only child.

    The reason I ask those questions in the previous paragraph is because all too often, I think we try to blame someone else for consequences that we are faced with. I do not know the particular situation with your friend, but for me personally, although I suffered many consequences for my father’s actions, rather intended or not, I think it is no one’s responsibility but my own to deal with these consequences to the best of my ability, and not blame my father for why I am the way I am about so many things today. This is not to say that I forgive him for any of the decisions he made, because I most certainly do not and never will. But, I refuse to let the consequences of his actions be the consequences that dictate the way I live my life, though it has taken a very long time to make this realization.

  55. It is hard to say whether your friend is entirely responsible for the unintended consequences of leaving his wife and family. Is intention linked to culpability? I think that it is impossible to account for future “unintended consequences”, which is why I like that you teach us in class the importance of a balanced decision-making approach. These unintended consequences likely could have been avoided had he not made his decision solely based on outcomes… like maybe including a particular duty to his family in his decision? A duty to the vows he spoke on the day of their marriage ceremony? A duty to setting an example as the spiritual leader of the household? A duty to showing his children not to run from conflict, but work it out? A duty to demonstrating to his wife that he will stand by her “until death do us part”? I wonder if any of these were part of his decision…

  56. This reminds of a time in my life when I was working at a summer camp (like all cool people do in college after their freshman year). I was on the “work crew” one week which meant that we worked behind the scenes serving the other counselors and kids in various ways. At one point we were supposed to make our way down to some building from the kitchen where we just finished serving lunch. There was a tetherball pole right in front of the kitchen and my friend and I decided to play a quick game. About thirty seconds later, I jumped up to hit the ball and landed super weird on my ankle. I heard a gigantic POP sound come from it and then it when numb. As I feel over, all my crew members ran to me and escorted me to the nurse’s station. I later was told my ankle was broken (but then later later was told it was just a sprain). As I was leaving camp to tend to my injury (seemingly never to return, but I actually did two weeks later), my camp director told me in my evaluation that I lacked good judgement because of my poor decision to play tetherball while I was supposed to be working. Never saw that coming in a million years.

    As to your friend, I believe he is fully responsible for all the hurt and pain that comes out of his decision to leave his wife. We see this so much in society these days, but choose to ignore the domino effect of suffering it unleashes on the wife and all of the kids forever. Sometimes it is very subtle, but the friends of mine that have divorced parents, I can definitely tell it affects them to the core and they carry that pain with them the rest of their life.

  57. I believe schristy got straight to the point on this. People are ultimately responsible for decisions they make and the friend referred to is responsible for the outcome of his own decision. With a decision of that scale you may not know the unintended consequences, but it would be ignorance not to recognize that there will be some nonetheless. Rather than trying to focus on the consequences that may not be known, we should focus on the outcome we are trying to achieve; is it moral or necessary? If so, then unintended consequences are necessary inconveniences to a solution of a problem.

  58. I agree with you Dr. Shaub, about how people mostly only consider the forseeable or “short-term” consequences, but I find that there are always going to be unforseeable circumstances that arise whenever you make a decision. The intent is after you choose to do something, that the decision you make will mitigate all the negative outcomes. Your friend’s decision to leave his wife reminds me of my fiancee’s parents. He was born in Kuwait and his father was very wealthy there. He received an opportunity with his company to transfer to the United States, but he thought he’d be taking a huge loss by moving and starting a new life in a different country with his family. A few years later, Saddam Hussein took over, seized the assets of the middle and upper-class citizens, and the Gulf War shortly followed. My fiancee’s family was forced to leave Kuwait and all their worldly posessions behind. They were actually traveling with refugees to escape the country. When they finally reached to America, their wealth was gone and my fiancee’s parents divorced shortly after. It’s funny how life works. Had my fiancee’s father taken the opportunity to move to America the first time, their lives would be completely different. That decision at the time was probably the most sensible one to make; no one would have guessed at the time that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait. I’m a firm believer in fate and destiny. Whenever I make decisions now, I make them with good intentions and hope I can live with what happens. Hence, I don’t always calculate the consequences of my actions because I find that there’s always going to be something unexpected. I guess in respect to ethical decisions, I would call myself a deontologist. I hope I’m making the right decisions, but not out of fear of what might happen.

  59. II think it is interesting that you bring up the Nothing But Nets campaign. I had heard about that a few years back but I head never heard about the unintended fishing problem that resulted.

    About your friend, it is hard to judge a situation without knowing all of the facts. But is he responsible for his unintended consequences? Of course he is. He chose to leave. In today’s society it would seem that the sacred character of marriage has been lost. It’s hard to want to get married when you look around you and 50% of the people you know are divorced. I think people don’t think about those consequences because society has made the option of divorce okay. Maybe people rationalize their behavior by comparing themselves to all the famous divorcees in the media. I don’t know. It’s kind of sad.

  60. Like you mentioned, the short-term results of an ethical decision are usually what we focus on when determining the “right answer”. Just the other day I was running late to a group meeting and without knowingly doing it, began speeding down wellborn which resulted in a speeding ticket. Although I did not mentally know I was speeding I weighed out the calculation in my head and determined it was worth going a bit faster in order to be not as late to my meeting. However, the unintended consequences of my actions were a speeding ticket as well as fact I was later than I would have been if I had not been speeding.

    I am lucky to say that this is one of the worst examples of unintended consequences that I have experienced to date. However, I know that the growing up only makes decisions tougher and the consequences harder to calculate. I look forward to my work life when I will be faced with ethical decisions which I must pick the “right” answer, but I also fear that I will not have the strength or will to make these decisions. I hope to avoid unintended consequences throughout my life, but I know that this is physically impossible. For this reason, I only pray that I am able to think through my decisions and use my moral compass to guide my life and to try and avoid as many unintended consequences as possible.

  61. I feel that there is absolutely no way to calculate long-term consequences of your decisions because you can not anticipate how other people will think/act. The situation involving the mosquito nets in Zambia is a perfect example of this. Even decisions made with the best of intentions can lead to bad results if the other parties do not act as anticipated. Also, even in circumstances where we know with relative certainty what the outcome will be, I feel that people tend to be extremely poor consequence calculators in general. Unfortunately, unless humans suddenly develop the ability to see into the future and read minds, there will always be unanticipated, unintended consequences to our actions.

  62. You have talked a lot about unintended consequences, but you have never brought up misjudged intentions.

    Misjudged intentions occurs two ways, either you negatively interpret someones positive intentions or you positively interpret someone’s negative intentions.

    Negatively interpreting someone’s positive intentions means you falsely label them as unethical. You may trust them less, avoid doing business with them, or disparage them to others.

    Positively interpreting someone’s negative intentions is the reverse. You may trust someone you shouldn’t, enter into business transactions you shouldn’t, or encourage others to do business with them. The blind leading the blind.

    Accurately judging others intention is difficult, and over analysis is the first step towards paranoia.

    Should you always stake others at face value? How deep should you look into others intentions?

  63. Something that I kept thinking about while reading this post is that we don’t know what we don’t know. That kind of falls into the division of the two types of unintended consequences, we can somewhat predict the foreseeable ones, but the unforeseeable consequences we don’t even know exist we just have to rely on our past experiences to know that they do. So then what can we do to take into account events that we don’t even know, is there really anything we as humans can do? We can only hedge the risk that we know exists, what about all the unknown?

  64. I absolutely agree that we should take the unintended consequences, especially the foreseeable ones, into account whenever making a decision. In particular, our government has to pay attention to those unintended consequences when they make a decision which will affect people on a far more extent. In the past couple of years, our government has indebted billions of dollars in deficit by bailing out big banks, reforming health care system, and putting stimulus to economy. It is understood that some of the actions were essential to reverse the economic downturn, but what impact will those deficits bring to our next generation? Will such burden change the ways of living for people in the years to come? Also, looking at the ongoing crisis of oil spill in the Gulf, our government has to think twice about the off-shore drilling. What measures of protect to the environment can they enforce on the drilling? What other disasters might be induced by the drilling? These are the questions they have to answer before any decisions to be made.

  65. I agree that people should take greater care in calculating these unintended consequences into the equation. And like rjones said, today’s society is just focused on what we can get right here and right now. I also believe that if somebody wants something bad enough, they can justify it in a hundred different ways. The human mind is so powerful. I remember when my great-grandma was losing her hearing she would magically hear the things she wanted to hear, but when we told her she couldn’t have dessert because of the sugar she all of a sudden lost her hearing again. Sometimes we can manifest on the things we want for so long that we can become disillusioned by them and not even consider the consequences. Honesty is a tough one. So often we are not honest with people because we are so concerned with not hurting them in the short-term, but not being up front with them only last so long and in the long-run we often find ourselves losing friendships because of this. I think most of the time people have good intentions so unintended consequences are so hard to foresee.

  66. I think the “short-term” mindset that people fall into the trap of can be related as one of the main cause of the financial crisis. Mortgage salesmen were only thinking about short-term profits when they decided to sell loans to people who they knew were not going to be able afford them. As long as they made money that year, whatever consequences came later on would be minute. Well, unfortunately those consequences were larger than anyone could have dreamed of and flung the world into a financial crisis they we are still struggling to recover from. As we move forward, hopefully salesmen can be more ethical and consequential-thinking when making decisions to sell loans.

  67. I have to agree that most of the time people do not take into account unintended consequences into their decision-making. However, I cannot say whether or not people ought to thing through these consequences more often. The decision-making process is not any less rational the way it is. Why should anyone take into account an event that is not part of his/her intention while making a decision? The number of unintended consequences would also be difficult to measure and some are unforeseeable. Plus, some unintended consequences might not present themselves as presumed. The decision-making process would become inefficient. Instead people should make decisions based on goals and intentions, while considering that more than likely there will be unintended consequences, but without going into detail as to what these will be.

    However, this is not to say that one shouldn’t be responsible for unintended consequences. My point is that people should make decisions based on what they do know and what they intend. Then, because the decision maker recognized that unintended consequences might occur, once the unintended events unfold, he/she should come forward, accept responsibility, and address the issues properly.

  68. I read this blog a few days before I did my reading for our last WERS, and in the book I read it talked about calculating your consequences. The author made the same statement as you did about how we need to consider long-term consequences as well as our short-term. I have been in several situations before where I only thought of the short-term consequences and some of the time I did end up with unfortunate events later on.
    I don’t believe your friend is responsible for all of his unintended consequences. Some things can happen unexpectedly. A consequence can sometimes come from a reaction of another person and there is no sure way to calculate how someone may or may not respond.

  69. As I was reading this blog, I couldn’t help but relate this message to that of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb (definitely a must read for any business professional if you haven’t read it already). Events happen and most of the time they are out of our control. We use our rational mind and past experiences as human beings to make decisions that will affect our future. But here is the problem…the farther forward looking we try to be, the more random events can take place. These random events cannot be accurately calculated based upon our current knowledge (at the time the decision is made). Black swan events not only affect financial decisions, but those of our everyday life. The man in the example has to take the consequences of his actions in stride and live up to his duties.

  70. I believe that we should always think very hard about the consequences of our decision, whether they be intended or unintended. The thing about unintended consequences is that they are present in virtually every decision we make. I know that in my life, I have found that things do not always end up the way that you planned. Sometimes we try and do things for all the right reasons, but it still turns out poorly. Take the mosquito net for example. The people were trying to donate these nets to stop help the spread of malaria, a very noble cause. But, they turned around and used them for fishing nets and have now done detrimental damage to the wildlife in the sea. Though this is something that most of us would probably not think of, the donation still turned out to be a sub par decision. We must always remember to think about what can be done with a gift/donation/information.

  71. I agree that we can never predict all consequences of our actions. Just when we think we’ve looked down all paths, someone throws a curve ball and puts another fork in the road. If we could predict all intended and unintended consequences, our law system would work much better. Currently we make laws trying to protect the most people. With those laws, however, come loopholes. There is an exception to every rule. That makes for many unintended consequences.

    All we can do is try to think of the long-term effect from multiple perspectives. Then pray and hope for the best.

  72. There will never be a way to calculate all the consequences and reactions our actions will have on ourselves or others. Sometimes is just comes down to different interpretations like the mosquito nets being used to fish instead due to their interpretation of what the nets were supposed to be for. Other times it comes down to chance. Things may not always work out the way one envisions it or how it’s “supposed” to. I have many times done a certain action to be nice or honest. However, the reaction wasn’t the one I intended. Instead my actions were misinterpreted or had unintended consequences, which in the end caused me to be worse off. However, that’s the risk that one takes.

  73. I agree that most take into consideration the short-term consequences rather than fully contemplating the long-term effects of their decisions. The unintended consequences are what, I would say, make life a little more interesting because it is a consequence that was out of your hands and can be seen as meant to be. Obviously, this statement doesn’t hold true to every situation; especially when we are talking about divorce. There are many ways to look at your friends situation as to whether he is fully responsible for any unintended consequences that will result from his action. He should be responsible for majority of the unintended consequences that come out of the divorce. My heart and prayers go out to him and his family.

  74. From the discussion, it seems like the unintended consequences appear to be negative. However, I like to think there can be positives as unintended consequences. I have been fortunate to go on two study abroads during my time here at Texas A&M. My mindset before going was this is going to be the time of my life and I’m going to make so many friends. Surprisingly, I got so much more out of both of my trips. My awareness of the world is much sharper. I feel like I can watch news broadcasts and movies dealing with other parts of the world and really understand what is going on. I know thier way of life and can better understand how certain natural and political disasters can rock their world in a way more drastic than in the United States. History almost comes to life as you look at ruins thousands of years old. Traveling makes you smarter and more understanding of the world. Reading books that take place in these foreign places seem more realistic and I can put myself into the characters’ shoes. I now know how important travel is, especially at a young age. That is something I can make sure my children do because I know what a benefit travel has been in my life. I hoped to just have fun on my trips, but the unintended consequences were overwhelmingly positive.

  75. While I haven’t made any sort of decisions that I’d consider “life-altering” yet, or at least not on par with divorce, I still feel like many times consequences arise not necessarily from the decisions we make initially, but from our actions after the fact. Obviousy if you go through a divorce with children in the equation, you had better know ahead of time that you’ll be doing some major damage control later. It’s how we handle these subsequent decisions that determine the intensity of the original consequence.

  76. I also believe that unintended consequences can very be positive in one’s life whether its a human being or business world today

    Pfizer was one of the major pharmaceutical company before its founding of Viagra, however it became even more popular after the founding of Viagra. IT is very interesting to see why Viagra was invented first place. It was invented to solve blood pressure problem. I suppose if Pfizer was focusing on short-term cost savings and stop the problem, Viagra would have never exist today’s market price, least not by Pfizer.

    I also have personal experience over this. I spent 5weeks in Europe in the year of 2008. It was right before the financial Crisis, so Euros were so expensive. I had about 1500 Euros to make my living in Italy. Soon enough, I had to start sleeping on the benches at the train station to save some hotel cost. I couldn’t sleep at the hard bench one night, so I decided to walk around in Rome at 3am and see where my life takes me. It was really random. I had no directions nor knew anything; I got on this bus/train to see where they are taking me. I got to some kind of shady street. While I was lost, this Egyptian guy took me to the Italian club with me. It was very interesting experience. Let’s just say it is not that crazy in Europe like people see in the movies. I was pretty disappointed about the club and decided to leave. I was walking around again halfway drunk. I guess I dropped my golden bracelet (which is worth about 150?) I meant it meant something to me, and I’m sure it can be easily turn into cash. This another Egyptian guy picked it up and notified me that I dropped it. Although there was no actual means of communication since he didn’t speak any English nor I spoke any Italian, I ended up finding some opportunities there; a job and how to negotiate things better in Italy. I learned that there was a Italian price/foreigner price. Everything was so random, but I believed I learned some life-time skills. I’m pretty confident now that I can survive anywhere in the world.

  77. I myself have felt the impact of unintended consequences. One of the most important ones being me coming to Texas A&M. I made my decision to attend Texas A&M more or less on the fact that it was where most of my friends would going. I had no clue about the culture behind A&M and the moral values it’s student had. After five years of college I can say I have become an aggie and the experiences and lessons I’ve learned here have truly shaped me as an individual. Five years ago I would have never foresaw the growth I would undergo from my decision.

  78. I have recently been involved in a situation that had some unintended consequences, though they were not negative. Five years ago, an elementary school girl was diagnosed with leukemia and didn’t have very long. Our community came together and hosted a large bone marrow drive to see if anyone was a match for her blood. All it involved was a swab of your cheek and a prick of your finger – very simple. I, along with many, many other people, attended the drive to see if we could potentially be a match for her. What I did not know was that once your undergo the tests, you are placed on a National Bone Marrow Registry list. Two years later in December of 2007, I received a phone call from the Scott and White Bone Marrow Donation Program – I was a match for a 40-year-old lady who had a severe case of leukemia. I underwent some more clinical testing and it was determined that not only was a match, but that I was a perfect one. No time was wasted and on February 14, 2008, I anonymously donated my bone marrow to a very sick lady that I had never met before.

    I had no idea when swabbing my cheek for that little girl that I would be saving somebody’s life a couple years down the road; that was not a consequence that I intended. The lady was supposed to have a maximum of three months left to live when they contacted me in December of 2008. She is still alive and doing well today.


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