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?