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Unintended Consequences

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


During the nineteenth century rabbits were imported from Europe into Australia as a source of food and were hunted for sport. Within decades the rabbits had bred prodigiously, spread throughout large parts of the country, and had dramatically altered the natural environment. Their voracious appetite destroyed many native plant species, which led to erosion as well as the demise of animal species that fed on that vegetation.

The rabbit in Australia is one of the best-known examples of what is often called the Law of Unintended Consequences. Not a scientific law, it is best understood as an inherent potential for all goal-directed actions to have consequences other than those that were intended. Most of these consequences are often due to ignorance, inattention, or myopia, and some are actually beneficial. Aspirin, for example, was developed as an effective painkiller. No one realized at the time that it might reduce the risk of heart attack, strokes, and blood clotting, which is one of its most widespread applications today.

While there hasn’t been a tally to see whether negative outcomes occur more often than positive ones, it is the negative consequences that capture our imagination and concern us. The most troubling of these are often referred to as “perverse” outcomes, where the result of a course of action has exactly the opposite of what was intended. A common example of this effect in a media-conscious age are attempts to censor a given image or website that result in it becoming more widely know than it was prior to the demand for censorship.

In any event, it is very likely that almost all purposeful action—usually referred to as “conduct”—has many consequences other than the intended one, and these effects may be quite mixed. The effects of Prohibition are a case in point. Making and consuming liquor was made illegal in the United States between 1919 and 1933. Outlawing liquor, however, created an infrastructure for criminal enterprise whose most lasting consequence was the expansion of organized crime from that time on. Nevertheless, another consequence of Prohibition was more positive: a marked decline in alcoholism and alcohol related diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver during the period when liquor was illegal.

Becoming aware of how even the clearest course of action can have unintended consequences is an important exercise of sociological reasoning and helps us develop the ability to anticipate, and perhaps avoid, those that are most negative.

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

1. The modern world is full of examples of the effect of unintended consequences. Much of the literature is about negative ones, but there are positive ones as well. For example, during the nineteenth century, New England was dotted with small family farms leaving only 15 percent of the land covered with forest. As fewer and fewer people in New England farm, much of the land has reverted to forest, and today fully 85 percent of the entire area is covered with trees. One effect of this is now more deer populate this part of the country than before Europeans colonized the area. Can you think of a similarly positive effect of unintended consequences and describe it briefly below?

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