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The Law of Unintended Consequences

by Arlene Goldbard
Richmond, California

The Law of Unintended Consequences says that the unintended consequences of an action are likely to have more impact that the ones that were intended. I have absolutely no doubt that it is correct.

Look anywhere: Hillary Clinton thought attacks on opponents by her husband (who has since been silenced) and herself would damage Barack Obama. No one knows what the eventual outcome will be (the only way to learn all the consequences of any action is to wait and see, maybe forever). But it now appears that the damage is primarily to her own candidacy, as she has come off looking more and more petty and nasty. The Clintons have been on the receiving end of so many petty and nasty attacks themselves, one might have thought this would make them gentle and empathic. But in such circumstances, an unintended consequence is all too often that victims learn from their attackers and become attackers themselves.

When I was growing up in the fifties, medical experts thought it would be a good idea to excise organs such as tonsils or the appendix, which appeared to have no function. These were thought to be vestigial organs, no-longer-useful remnants of the species' history. The latest thinking is that they both have subtle roles in our immune systems, and the appendix also helps in recovery from certain intestinal ailments. (We'll have to wait and see if there's more to them, maybe forever.) But once they're gone, the hidden good they might do is gone with them.

When governments tore down inner-city neighborhoods in the sixties with the intention of replacing what they saw as blight with nice, clean high-rise housing, while their motives were not pure (nor especially wise, even at the time), they never expected to create incubators for bad drugs like heroin and crack and the associated damage and despair. Yet that has been the one consistent result of what was touted as "urban renewal" and has come to be called "urban removal."

Removing fat from packaged foods was described as a strategy to reduce obesity and associated diseases. But it turned out that increased consumption of highly refined carbohydrates in the place of old-fashioned fat-laden treats actually accelerated obesity.

The performers and athletes whose drive for success leads to fame and fortune imagined--as they doodled dreamily in their school notebooks, wishing on stars--that they might live happily ever after in the modern equivalent of a castle, perpetually adored and pampered. But often, a life without privacy is too high a price to pay, and some of them find they cannot survive the limelight.

In my own life, examples are rife: I made a move that was intended to increase prosperity, and wound up accumulating debts. I postponed my own gratification in the interests of the greater good, and wound up advancing neither. I have a whole shelf of manuscripts I spent years writing, but my wish to publish them has not been granted. (I hope to have the opportunity to wait and see if other outcomes develop, but who knows?)

I've written about randomness before, so you know how astounded I am at our attachment to the evergreen human illusion of control over events, despite very little evidence to support it. Eons of common wisdom notwithstanding (e.g., Man plans and God laughs), we want to believe that when we set out to do X, X will be the result. This creates all sorts of logical absurdities, like the way we tend to accept credit for good results and write the bad ones off as not our fault; or the way we corral the ill effects of our actions with words that try to remove the sting (e.g., "side-effects" for the harm done by our attempts to cure).

Yet here we are, members of the species Hannah Arendt and others dubbed homo faber ("man the maker"): we love to make and do, most of us equating making and doing with living--or at least when we cease making and doing, we tend to wonder what we are living for. Out of the way: you can't stop homo faber!

If I think long and hard enough about this, I start to dream of curling into a ball in a little cottage by the sea somewhere, subsisting on tea and seaweed. But I'm as addicted as anyone to my dreams of making and doing. So I've decided to adopt a few simple guidelines in the hopes of limiting slightly the damage I might do:

First, unlike the blithely hubristic doctors who removed countless tonsils, I want to remember that if something has been part of human anatomy, civilization or our planet's environment for ages, the default position should be that it has a function that shouldn't be dismissed lightly. We can outgrow things (e.g., slavery has a lineage, but that doesn't make it worth preserving). But I agree with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan that "Tradition has a vote, not a veto." Despite a great many experiments in alternatives, for instance, people seem to want to live in family groups, whether tied by blood or more voluntary connections, so social programs should focus first and foremost on preserving and strengthening family units, only removing children when other options are proven impossible.

Second, I want to remember that making or doing itself must be its primary reward, because we cannot reasonably count on it producing a longed-for result. I really did enjoy writing all those as-yet unpublished books, especially the ones that entailed creating fictional worlds. It was delicious visiting another planet every day. And of course, writing them is how I taught myself to write.

Third, because few of us can guarantee ourselves absolute freedom to do what we wish (i.e., I may decide I have to make or do something that is not my first choice, out of economic or other necessity), it is important to focus on and cultivate all that is good in whatever we encounter on our path. This I find challenging: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with," said Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but it's hard to break myself of  fantasizing a life of total freedom to pick and choose my work, and thus hard to stop myself suffering because so far, I don't have it.

Fourth is a tough one for me too: when in doubt, refrain. Here it's important to distinguish between fear and doubt. If I know what I want, stopping myself out of fear of not getting it, or of being hurt in the process--this takes me out of the stream of life, which is animated by pursuing desires. By "doubt," I mean instead giving full consideration, emotional and rational, to my choices and finding that none of them emerges as the clear favorite. Then it is time to pause for clarity, and for me, pausing is very hard. I will just have to wait and see if it turns out to be wise; but not, I hope, forever.

About the author: Arlene Goldbard ( is a writer and consultant. Access her writings and subscribe free to her blog at

Published in In Motion Magazine March 4, 2008

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