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The Law of Unintended Consequences, as a moral stance.

By Andrew Pollack on 12/13/2005 at 10:41 AM EST

The Law of Unintended Consequences is simply the idea that you cannot accurately predict all the ramifications of your actions. If you're someone who believes the end result can justify the means used to achieve that result, it is this law which is constantly kicking your moral ass. If instead you choose to do the right thing for the present circumstances whenever possible, allowing for the future but not counting on it, you'll end up ahead of the game. Let me give you some examples of unintended consequences.

In a recent example, take a look at Open Office. This product comes on the scene and over the last year or so has really taken off. Its a freely available office suite that rivals Microsoft Office in a great many respects. Its good enough that most users could probably use it and never miss the Microsoft branded product. Microsoft REALLY doesn't like this. The competition, however, ended up being a good thing for the marketplace. Microsoft will be releasing the first new version of Office in a long time which really does add a lot of value to the average user. They were forced back to the drawing board to come up with innovations that were creative, hard to duplicate, and substantially beneficial. If you haven't seen previews yet, you're in for a treat. Who wins here? I think Microsoft ends up winning because they have a better product at the end. I think users win big because they have a low cost alternative and a very much higher functional alternative if they want to pay for it. The open source community probably wins a little by virtue of increased credibility and they've succeeded at causing some pain in Redmond, but in terms of winning desktops I think they've been set back at least a year. They've been bitten by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Lets look back further though, to what really got me started thinking about this. Eugene J. McCarthy ran for the Democratic ticket against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, and though he lost that bid, he did better than anyone expected. He did so well that many people credit him for Robert F. Kennedy entering the race. The combination of the success of two strong anti-war candidates at his doorstep lead to LBJ dropping out of the race, leaving McCarthy and Kennedy to slug things out while Vice President Humphrey remained largely unscathed. Kennedy's assassination left a weakened McCarthy running against Humphrey, who ended up with the nomination largely due to the structure of the voting process. In the end, Humphrey lost to Nixon who quite probably would not have beat either McCarthy or Kennedy. Can we say that Nixon's Presidency was an unintended consequence of McCarthy's run against LBJ? Who could have predicted that sequence of events?

I've made the unpredictability of the Law of Unintended Consequences the basis for my own moral philosophy. That is to say, you cannot accurately predict the results of your actions sufficiently well to ever believe that the ends will justify the means. Rather, you should do the right thing based on what you know to be true at the time you have to make the decision. Its been my experience thus far, that you usually come out ahead in the long run.


There are  - loading -  comments....

A few pointsBy Bruce Perry on 12/15/2005 at 01:09 PM EST
Applied honestly, this seems a reasonable starting point. The trouble comes in
when you get to specific cases. There's the stuff we can all predict (fire
burns, water freezes, things fall down). There's events that are very likely
(drunk driving leads to accidents, most gamblers lose) that would lead a
strictly rational mind not to gamble or drive drunk, yet people do these
things. Then there are things we need experts to predict (we need a bridge to
hold up 25, cars, 3 trucks, and up to 4 feet of snow). Then there's things
like elections where even the "experts" aren't always right.

The first two words of the previous paragraph are critical. If a decision is
made without honestly evaluating the existing situation and considering likely
outcomes, then the decision maker is not off the hook in a moral sense. And
yes, I was thinking of the Iraq war, but this could equally well apply to some
business decisions I've seen as well.

Here's a few more scattered thoughts:

I think the open source community benefits in more ways than simply gaining
credibility and hurting Micro$oft. They gain document formats that aren't
subject to change without notice and with no appeal.

One of my favorite science fiction writers once said, "When you chose an
action, you chose the consequences of that action".


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