Unintended Consequences (or How Bad People Can Lead to Good Results)

There’s an interesting issue of distinguishing good consequences from good people. Good people can make bad decisions leading to bad consequences. My favorite example of that is apostle Reed Smoot who was made a Senator in 1902. I take it for granted that he was a good man. However he sponsored the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930 which many think led to a deeper and longer depression than was necessary.[1] I think the opposite is true as well. Bad people can do good things. Two examples from the past are Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I think the moral failings of both are well known but it’s easy to point to important policies they led the way on that many feel were extremely good. Often importantly so.[2]

Recently the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault have come up. Many see the personal actions of our current President in this regard as deeply problematic at best and horrific at worst. It’s an interesting question though whether the current focus on sexual harassment and assault would have happened without him. I’m not arguing he intended this social change. Far from it. Yet would people have written about Harvey Weinstein with the associated actions had there been no Trump as President? It’s hard to know for sure, but given the past it’s unlikely.

As I write more traditional attempts to avoid consequences from sexual scandal are ongoing in the Alabama election but also in the Senate with two major Senators facing accusations thus far. Likewise I suspect that the list of members of Congress and the Senate who required millions in payouts for sexual harassment will be made public. Again just a guess, but the current public mood seems different than in the past. For one it’s not breaking along normal party lines. Yes there are the expected partisan support of Al Franken, John Conyers and most egregiously Roy Moore. However many – arguably most – of both parties oppose these actions and want there to be serious consequences.

I raise all of this just to note that while times may look bad often what we’re seeing are the breaking of waves. The consequences can be good. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have worries about the moral situation in the world. We most definitely should. However often the very things we focus in on with the media’s myopia actually demonstrate that society has changed for the better. The very fact such things get such attention show not how vile society is but that society has changed enough that such things are news. I’m not sure a few decades ago they would have been. That’s a change for the better.

1. To be fair many economists think the effect of Smoot-Hawley is exaggerated. I don’t want to get into the economics debate since I’m not really qualified to make those sorts of arguments. Even if it wasn’t a principal cause it wasn’t good. The point is more about how consequences aren’t tied to how good a person is.

2. Again I’m not trying to get into a political debate about the past here. I know not everyone thinks the Great Society was good – or at least thinks there were negative unintended consequences. Likewise not everyone thinks Nixon’s reproachment with China, the ABM treaty, or his formation of the EPA were good. We can I guess debate other policies but hopefully they at least stand as examples of people with well known moral failings who did a lot of things most people consider good.

18 comments for “Unintended Consequences (or How Bad People Can Lead to Good Results)

  1. Clark Goble, thanks again for a complex topic. Whether or not we would agree on individual political issues isn’t a problem for me; my view of history, U.S. history specifically, is that we got better despite our own capacity for evil.

    Those people agreeing out of compromise that African slaves would be considered less than human for determining state senate seats in the U.S. Constitution still helped erect the framework that would eventually provide civil rights for the descendants of those slaves that states couldn’t simply override or ignore.

    This outcome doesn’t eliminate the reprehensible nature of that compromise; a compromise was necessary to make progress and agreed upon. That the outcome would be the gradual undoing of the system that brought up the compromise can be either be seen as an eventual move toward justice, or plain good luck. Both seem valid points of view.

    I am reminded of the quote from Joseph Smith that “no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing…” my LDS mission president had us missionaries recite at every zone meeting. I have come to understand that “the work” includes the expansion of civil rights, and equal protection of the law, to all humans. Only in this environment can the gospel of the Christ tranaform the humans that will into divine beings.

  2. I hadn’t made the connection to Columbus Day. Although wasn’t that less about whether Columbus did good than whether he should be venerated with a holiday? Even though I think LBJ and RMN may have done good, I’m not sure I want a day after them.

  3. Good and bad are loaded words, aren’t they? Smoot-Hawley might have been bad economically, but maybe it wasn’t bad morally. I think it is probably better to say that Smoot-Hawley may have made the Great Depression last longer than it otherwise might have, rather than saying Smoot-Hawley was bad. And so forth.

    Anyway, we have seen throughout history where God uses bad men to bring good things to pass. I don’t know if God is involved on either side in the current unpleasantness with harassment allegations, but maybe our society will be better for it. As with all things, I hope the pendulum doesn’t swing too far.

  4. This seems very related to people’s responses to the classic trolley problem (role of commission vs omission or intents vs outcomes).

    An all outcome or all intent approach, while ideologically pure, seems utterly unfit. Both approaches are very easy to game and usurp. Mixed approaches require much more nuance as they need just the right mixes in just the right areas. This makes them hard to fake and hard to usurp. With our current moral unfreezing, we’re seeing all sorts of interesting mixes. The hypocrisy call-out battles are quite fascinating in this regard.

    I think Tooby’s recent edge piece has some really challenging ideas in this regard


    “Indeed, morally wrong-footing rivals is one point of ideology, and once everyone agrees on something (slavery is wrong) it ceases to be a significant moral issue because it no longer shows local rivals in a bad light. Many argue that there are more slaves in the world today than in the 19th century. Yet because one’s political rivals cannot be delegitimized by being on the wrong side of slavery, few care to be active abolitionists anymore, compared to being, say, speech police.

    Moreover, to earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. Communications of practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty.”

    But is is the outcomes or intents that people attack? Doesn’t seem to matter as long as it differentiates the “other”. Thus we see some really weird tribal ground that is probably close to randomly assorted, but which can be ex post facto rationalized as a semi-coherent stance. People are just really really good as fuzzy logic synthesis and sensing other people’s net proximity to sufficient in-groupness.

  5. Chris g, I think I grock what you’re sharing. In all the conversations I’ve observed in this venue (Times and Seasons), there have been sections of tacit agreement that give the appearance of less biased conversation, and other sections where distinct “otherness” has been introduced by one or more participants which skews/polarizes the conversation.

    Let me say, and I’ll take responsibility for any offence I generate, we here appear to believe we are at least somewhat like-minded as to the LDS church and its theology in general, and yet there are times when I myself have questioned that assumption.

    Human bias is usually beyond our personal conscious awareness, and easy to deny. It tends to operate as dismissal through ad hominem statements. In my own experience, I have found it necessary to listen to the arguments other humans make and give each “the benefit of the doubt,” suspending dismissal and actually giving consideration to the argument.

    I wouldn’t call this objectivity; objectivity is an illusory state for humans. Just call it a deliberate attempt to process an argument. In this manner, I look at history, whether my own personal history or state history, etc. and see all the players, the stakeholders, as much I can, to learn from the choices and actions that went before, “to be more wise than we have been.”

  6. As to holidays and history, holidays rarely cause celebrants to engage with the complexity of the holiday itself, and for the most part, I can live with that. Thanksgiving in the U.S. is celebrated today. I’ve dealt with the possible generational guilt from the background of this holiday already, owned what I felt was mine to own, allow other humans with a similar cultural background to handle the complexity of the holiday their own way, and I am ready to give thanks and eat a delicious meal with family. Besides, dealing with the complexity of family is enough for me on this particular holiday. :)

  7. Speaking of holidays, Clark I’m hopeful that you’re right here and that I have reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving.

  8. Thanks Clark for a great post as always,

    I was thinking while reading how Mormon theology has this concept of good consequences emerging from the bad built into it. From Satan’s intent to derail the plan of salvation in the Garden of Eden emerged the vital experience of mortality.

  9. Chad, yeah that’s an interesting feature of the Mormon theodicies. The ‘character building theodicy’ where the evils and sufferings develop our eternal character is explicitly acknowledging good from bad. But even our take on the Garden of Eden and fall has Satan unwittingly bringing about God’s purposes. It’s hard not to think of Adam Smith in all this who was one of the first to see how good can emerge out of people pursuing selfish aims. But I think the principle goes more broadly.

    Chris, the interplay of morality and inter-group power dynamics is interesting. Of course the idea that it’s really power goes back at least to Nietzsche and arguably is behind much of the intersectional left’s approach to morality. The problem with such approaches as you note is that it tends to neglect consequences too much. I’m far from an Utilitarian but it often worries me how quickly people are to neglect consequences. On the right abortion is a great example of that. People who claim abortion is the key issue will oppose practices that might reduce abortion (free birth control, higher transfer payments to poor parents) and see no conflict. It’s also interesting that when a figure does egregious things (Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Al Franken, etc.) utilitarian concerns come up so swiftly. Contra some I don’t think it’s wrong to oppose such concerns. Yet something else also seems important. (Utilitarians can of course explain this with the utility of social norms)

    Relate to the group and signaling the question is why group identity seems so much more important now than in the past. I know there are various models – I’ve come around to Turchin’s elite competition model. In that case groups become important because it’s a way of fighting for dominance with all these other issues being more symptoms than causes. Which ironically goes back again to the Nietzschean model. Further there’s a big question of what level of power elites ought have. One interesting thing I’ve noticed the past two years is that the various elite groups and subgroups tend to be asking for more power which is a dangerous thing to have combined with these other things.

    JI, good and bad are somewhat loaded in that we don’t agree when to apply the words. I tried to bring that out in the footnotes with Nixon and Johnson. Still while people may disagree over wether Trump is bad or stopping sexual harassment is good, I suspect most readers here tend to agree upon those points.

  10. From my view point, and please forgive me if one or more other peole have brought this up in comments on other posts, group cohesion usually comes from identifying an “other,” usually a group that is labeled simplistically as “not us.” This “other” serves as scapegoat, both a target of blame and a convenient cover for our own biases. We can transfer our shortcomings and our secret desires onto this “other,” and thus externalize the evil within ourselves. This allows us a bizarre peace of mind as the cognitive dissonance within our own minds finds itself directed outward.

    God allows natural consequences to humble humans, hoping this humility will lead to a voluntary reaching from humans to God. Also, God hopes that as we endure such trials, this will lead to increased empathy. As we consider and engage in honest communication with the “other,” we begin to see the “other” bleeds when pricked, and seeks revenge when wronged, just as we do. We may even see the “other” loves their spouses and children, as we do. If the ” other” shares such commonalities with us, perhaps the “other” may feel as threatened by us as we feel threatened by them.

    The scales begin to fall from our eyes, and we see the “other” has transformed into beings like us. Perhaps the scales fall from their eyes, and they see we have transformed into beings like them. Our differences become individual differentiations and not group differentiations. Suddenly, live and let live becomes the norm, dogs and cats start living together, and our mass hysteria melts away.

  11. Jerry, I’d also add that the move to increased acceptance, from a quantitative biological perspective, seeds its own seeds of destruction. Ever increasing levels of acceptance bias things for nasty pull-back purges.

    Moderation is the easy solution here. However, moderating righteousness seems a bit…. weird, despite the chances that doing so at the right period MAY lead to “better” mid-term outcomes (like good intentions toward open borders leading to ultra-nationalistic blowback). Plus, I really value the parable of the talents. It has always made sense to leverage your interests – synergistic opportunities to do so always seem to come and go.

    I don’t have any good solutions to the conundrum Clark brings up. It is a messy problem. But then again, messiness is one of mortality’s major selling points…

  12. Good and evil are very hard to pin down in a definition, yet almost everyone recognizes them when they see them. I will say that the intent for goodness without wisdom ends up causing as much damage as the bad. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This, for the most part, is true.

    I don’t care about people’s intentions. Or their beliefs. Or their words. I only care about what they do. All that other stuff can change at a drop of a hat.

    And does.

  13. Clark, your original question seemed to invoke questions about analysis time scales: what happens if good eventually emerges from bad and vice versa.

    While time scale analysis are possible, I’m not sure how productive that path is. For instance, gene & kin selectionists use this approach for weak altruism. Weak altruism requires individual sacrifice which is more than recouped via group benefits. Acts must be continually re-interpreted based upon emerging outcomes. Obviously this gets really complicated when you aren’t dealing with genetic time-scales. But over long time scales you lose a lot of ability to talk about day-to-day type questions.

    The other approach is to frame altruism as based on intentions (strong altruism). This obviously introduces other problems, but brings the topic more into the realm of cultural discussions. This multi-level selection approach puts more focus on group orientation. This opens up some productive doors.

    Rather than looking at the time scale of individual actions, you look a the time scales over which groups are optimized. While certainly imperfect, I think it makes analysis a bit more practical. This is because you can sometimes tease out which level of selection is dominant and test why it might be so. For instance, long time scale oriented groups are probably slightly biased for cosmopolitanism. Short term groups are probably biased for internal cohesive efficiency.

    Righteousness seems similar. Bias things for ultra-long term considerations, but don’t be stupid enough to forget temporal concerns. Additionally, you need a few “prophetic figures” in any group who are split between radical utopian cosmopolitanism and radical inward norm control. Functionally, these act as “feelers” whose evolutionary purpose is to maintain network connections with external and internal groups and provide “sense and respond” roles.

    In terms of John’s comments, I think it lets you talk about someone’s actions in relation to you or your group. This frees up a bit more room for analysis without opening up a pandora’s time-box.

  14. In the OP I didn’t mean to really say anything about time just unintended positive consequences. It’s always hard to make judgments the longer time goes just because so much else affects the decision. So did Clinton bungle North Korea leading to our current situation? Or were there few other choices? Or is the current situation as much the effect of Bush and Obama? Hard to say. Ditto with Iraq. Had Bush by the end of his second term stabilized Iraq putting it on the road to democracy only to be undermined by Obama pulling out and Iran gaining more influence? I don’t think there’s a way to know. So the problem with time is the problem of counterfactuals getting more and more complex and impossible to know.

    Really my point is that altruism only gets one so far. The old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is very true. I was more just pointing out that the opposite is true as well. While I’m admittedly very fearful of what the Trump presidency is bringing, I think we should acknowledge some good regardless of what he is attempting. I am a big fan of Federalism (the idea that most programs/regulation should be done at the state not federal level) and I think Trump might well be pushing liberals to embrace it more. So if that happens I’d consider that a good result. Likewise I worry about an executive bureaucracy that can have de facto legislative ability largely unchecked by the legislative branch. But having someone unpredictable like Trump who doesn’t follow social norms might be scary in the short term but cause a rethink of such policies in the longer term. If that happens that’s good.

  15. Just the system dissipating energy, resulting in norms that are cleaner and stronger. Somewhere I remember someone talking about that the year before Trump’s election….

  16. I think I grock what chris g has laid out. I appreciate the complex, multi-layered arguments chris g brings to these dialogues. One personal observation I’ve made about both left and right in the U.S. (I don’t know enough about outside the U. S. to speak with any confidence) is the treatment of history. Both sides tend to oversimplify history (not just U.S. history) and both exercise a certain amount of confirmation bias.

    History in large part is about encounters between different groups of humans, where not only group agendas drive responses, but individual agendas, open or secret, also add complexity. Viewing history as a single thread or set of threads is gross oversimplification, and will inevitably overlook key or influential factors.

    I prefer to see any history as a tapestry, and, like in nature, repeating patterns are visible but on closer examination wil reveal subtle variations. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again (a repeated phrase from the new “Battlestar Galactica” series). But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details.

Comments are closed.