Intended versus Unintended Consequences: A Helpful Distinction

Intended versus Unintended Consequences: A Helpful Distinction March 25, 2020

Sometimes the right language can help us make better decisions or think more carefully about problems. 

Unless we are lucky or suddenly inspired, the best answers come from great questions. Since we cannot count on luck or demand inspiration, the wise person tries to get the right vocabulary to frame those questions.

Intended versus Unintended Consequences with Other Important Terms (Primary/Secondary, Active/Passive)  

As citizens discuss what to do about the present pandemic, there is a helpful distinction we can make when thinking about what the best ethical choices might be. When we act, those actions have intended consequences. For example, if I decide to feed the chickens, an intended consequence is well fed chickens. Normally, we get what we intended to get or we quickly see we have made an error! An error that causes me to pick up a bag of salt instead of a bag of chicken feed (however unlikely!), would mean that I could make some of the same motions with my arms, but the chickens will surely not be fed.

Sometimes we get something other than we intended. Imagine that my well fed chickens attract neighborhood predators because they are well fed. The predators, despite reasonable precautions, kill some of the chickens. Feeding the chickens may have had the unintended consequence of the chickens being more likely to die. Because many of our actions have complicated repercussions, we sometimes reap more than we sow, good things happen we did not intend, or less than we sow (bad things happen we did not intend).

This distinctions matters morally as intention is an important component of morality. One of my professors would intone: “Intent is the content of morality.” This may be overstated, but is a good reminder of the importance of intention to morality.

End of life care is an area where the vocabulary (intended/unintended) is important, including the discussion around euthanasia. Christian ethicists have (traditionally) opposed active euthanasia, because the primary intention is to cause death. On the other hand, many do not oppose passive euthanasia, refusing extraordinary health interventions, because the intention is not to cause death, but to avoid suffering. If while the person is in the process of natural death, a cure were discovered, everyone would rejoice!* Nobody has a duty to try every medical technique or act as the subject of experiments, though it might be heroic to do so.* In passive euthanasia, death is a secondary result of our primary actions, not directly caused by our actions. The disease is the “killer,” not our techniques to reduce pain and provide comfort in a hospice setting.

Notice in deciding what to do in an ethical situation, even with objective moral beliefs that are not compromised, there are many considerations. To pick a simple example: we might save some lives if everyone wore a crash helmet all the time. However, the cost to other pleasures and good things in life might be considered too high. We choose not to wear crash helmets in most of our workplaces, not because we wish anyone to die (in particular). We do not intend death, are not actively doing anything to cause death, and are doing so for greater (and more certain!) goods.

Culpable Unintended Consequences, Hard Choices, and Innocent Unintended Consequences 

Some things happen we did not intend, but should have known would happen. If we overfeed the chickens, then fat birds will result. We cannot claim (complete) innocence for causing this bird obesity through intention, because a reasonable adult should know how to feed birds before feeding birds. The information on what (generally) to do is widely available. Sometimes “unintended” consequences were only unintended, because we intentionally did not do our homework.

Sometimes many moral goods can collide. Life is sacred, but also must be lived. If we lived in the equivalent of bubble wrap, we might maximize our chances at prolonged life at too great a cost of other goods. Life is worth more than any amount of money for any Christian. Yet “money” can be placeholder for the general idea of prosperity that contributes to the common welfare of a people.  If we assume we should never do anything that would take an innocent human life for money, and surely this is not controversial in Christian ethics, knowing what we must do to minimize death is much harder.

The implications for moral reasoning in this present pandemic are obvious, but the application is hard. Generally, we should do what we can to directly save our neighbor’s life. We must do nothing that kills him. How much must we refrain from doing, if a secondary and regretted outcome is the loss of life? Medical professionals facing triage decisions know the complexities of these decisions and so must all the rest of us.

So what should we do?

I do not know in particular, since I do not have the medical, economic, or social facts necessary! The decisions to act or not act will also be many and the outcomes varied.  So why bother to make these simple distinctions? We can avoid demonizing people who come to different conclusions and find truly bad actors. If someone wishes death on a class of people, they are a bad actor. If another person has no regard to other forms of suffering other than death, and pretends choices between goods never have to be made, then they are also simply sloganeering.

There is a reason that much great literature, poetry, and culture comes from plague years. We are forced to do our hardest thinking, working with care, because the broken cosmos, flawed people (us!), have given us options where we fight for the greatest possible good knowing that what we wish could be, most probably cannot be. 


*The example is illustrative and certainly does not cover all the ground these issues raise. See former colleague Professor Scott Rae’s book for a start! 


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