Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

There are numerous examples of unintended consequences in our lives. Let’s refer to the person who sets off the chain of consequences as the “initiator.” Can we blame the initiator for these consequences, or do we ignore blame because the troublesome result was not “intended”? Sometimes this is simple, but sometimes it is not. Can you ever blame the initiator?

Well to answer the question, we must consider the degree of connection and details of the situation.  Sometimes, maybe often, the initiator deserves some guilt, and the degree depends on the circumstances.

Consider the following case. Suppose someone witnesses an event and thinks that a crime may have been committed. Without checking to see if in fact a law has been broken, the witness talks about it as though there was a serious crime. Perhaps the witness has a dislike or a conflict with the possible perpetrator or perhaps the witness has a habit of jumping to conclusions about others. Whatever the case, the witness accuses the possible perpetrator and threatens legal or reporting actions to several involved or even uninvolved people. As a result, the accusation and threats lead to a lost job, a damaged reputation, and emotional problems. After being accused of the negative outcome, the witness claims that these were unintended consequences and that he/she has no responsibility or guilt. Is that really true? Is the witness really guilt free? Well, consider the following. Should there have been evidence that a law was broken before the accusation? Should the witness have been more careful in his/her judgments and comments? There is a difference between a judgment following a real crime and a personal reaction after some distasteful but legal event. The careless witness does have some guilt for the consequences. What should the witness do to when it becomes clear that a crime was not committed, no law was broken, and he/she did some damage? The comments made were not supported by facts, and the big picture was not considered. The witness should have considered that the situation was not what he/she thought it was. How can amends be made?

Consider the case of a divorcing couple. The children have some emotional and school problems as a consequence of the divorce. Certainly, the parents did not intend this outcome, but it should have been anticipated. The divorcing parents have some responsibility here even though the consequences were unintended.

So, if someone says to you that what happened was unintended and therefore, we have no responsibility or guilt, do not automatically agree. Someone may very well have a degree of responsibility for it.

            Consider another case. Suppose you witness a wrongdoing, perhaps a situation in a parking lot where a vehicle backs into another and causes some damage. You are the only one who sees it, and you take the license number of the offending car that quickly drives away. Because you feel this is unjust, you, as a good Samaritan, send the license number and explanation to the owner of the parked, damaged car. What happens next is totally unexpected and unintended. Because the driver of the moving car works for a company that requires driving, he loses his job, and his wife has a breakdown from the stress. Is the good Samaritan responsible for the unforeseen consequences? Can the desire for justice and fairness justify some risk of unintended consequences? It seems yes. The risk can be justified.

            There is always a risk of unforeseen, negative, unintended consequences (and positive unforeseen consequences as well). Life is complex and one can’t know all the possible effects of an action. Also, for various reasons humans can have poor judgment. We must at least consider possible negative outcomes (and maybe positive outcomes as well) and their relative risk before we act or initiate.

Despite risks of a possible negative outcome, what are situations where you probably should act? When is the risk of a negative outcome worthwhile? How much risk is worthwhile? The greater the risk, the more careful we should be.