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Unintended consequences - Center for Ethics of Science and
Unintended Consequences
The 3rd Asia-Pacific Computing and Philosophy Conference 2007
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Joan H. Kim
California State University Los Angeles
Advisor: Dr. Russ Abbott
Overview
Introduction
► Background
► Literature Review
► Computational Thinking
► Proposed Characterization
► Gaming the System
► Historical Contingency
► Legal Process & Procedure vs. Common Sense
► Conclusion
► Resources
►
Introduction
►
►
Available literature shows, “unintended consequence” lacks
a clear, distinctive characterization.
A general notion of unintended consequence could be an
unplanned outcome.
 A virus infects your computer due to vulnerabilities in the operating
system design.
 Developing tax evasion strategies as a result of implementing
income tax laws.
 Discarding a banana peel, which causes someone to slip and fall.
 Philip K. Howard in The Death of Common Sense discloses a case
where the Missionaries of Charity, led by Mother Teresa, attempt to
construct a housing facility for homeless men, but are thwarted by
building code requiring an elevator in every new and renovated
building.
Sociological Term
University of Canterbury’s Glossary of
Sociological Terms defines unintended
consequence as:
 Repercussions or outcomes which result
from actions initiated for other purposes.
 This is thought to be a key dimension of
social activity, though these social effects
cannot be explained by actors' intentions.
► The
Background
►
Sociologist Robert K. Merton is credited with coining the
phrase in his article, "The Unanticipated Consequences of
Purposive Social Action" published in 1936.
 “The problem of the unanticipated consequences of purposive
action has been treated by virtually every substantial contributor to
the long history of social thought.”
 “The fact remains that though the process has been widely
recognized and its importance equally appreciated, it still awaits a
systematic treatment.”
 “We must examine and classify the types of social action and
organization with reference to the elements here discussed and
then refer our generalizations to these essentially different types.”
Possible Causes of
Unanticipated Consequences
►
Ignorance – not having “enough” knowledge.

►
Error – incorrect assessment based on assumptions or past history.

►
A nation might ban abortion on moral grounds even though children born as a result of
the policy may be unwanted and likely to be more dependent on the state.
Basic values – fundamental values preventing the consideration of
consequences.

►
Since you have received a payroll deposit every Friday for the last 2 years, you foresee no
reason your payroll will not deposit this coming Friday. In anticipation, you write a check,
which does not clear due to a payroll error that prevents your payroll from depositing as
you assumed.
Immediacy of interests – when the desire of immediate consequence
overshadows consideration of future consequences.

►
Not having a road map or the correct directions causes you to be late and miss an event.
Hard work and active asceticism paradoxically leads to its own decline through the
accumulation of wealth and possessions.
Self-defeating prediction – when prediction becomes an influencing
aspect on the very process it predicts.

Marx’s prediction of the progressive concentration of wealth and increasing misery of the
masses, leads to the spread of the organization of labor eliminating predicted
developments.
Post-Merton Literature
►
Sociological
 Raymond Boudon: Perverse Effects
 Richard Vernon: 3 General Categories
 Patrick Baert: Typology
►
Economic and Political
 Rob Norton: Heeding Its Power
 Adam Smith: Invisible Hand
 Steven J. Levitt: Freakonomics
►
Techonology
 Edward Tenner: Revenge Effects
Perverse Effects
►
►
►
►
Raymond Boudon restates, “the case that Merton in 1936 made for
what could be called the paradigm of the perverse effect.”
This "paradigm” links social change to the unintended consequences of
individual actions, and to efforts to address these consequences.
One major theme unifies the collection–the contention that at a
societal level the sum of individual actions brings about paradoxical
outcomes and results contrary to individual expectations and
intentions.
The main illustration, throughout the book, concerns the demand for
education in industrial societies.
 For example, each individual reasons that "more is better," but this serves
to decrease the worth of any given level of education for everyone.
3 General Categories
►
Over forty years after Merton’s introduction, Richard Vernon, a Professor of
Political Science at University of Western Ontario, in his Political Theory article
offers three general categories of unintended consequence.
 Unintended consequences arise as the cumulative outcome of similar actions
performed simultaneously or consecutively by a number of actors.
►
Karl Popper’s Poverty of Historicism describes many people all wanting to enjoy solitude in
the mountains who converge at the same time and consequently cannot enjoy solitude
there.
 Unintended consequences arise also from the simultaneous or consecutive
performance of dissimilar actions by individuals or groups.
►
Friedrich Hayek believes in a market system, when pricing increases from scarcity of goods
members of society following simple, self-interest use goods more efficiently or replace
them with less expensive equivalents resulting in unplanned efficiency and regulation of the
market.
 “Contextual change” – As context shifts, the use of various elements take on
unforeseen uses and meanings.
►
In Buster Keaton's The General, Keaton plays the hero who is swept towards some fearful
rapids along with his heroine. A rope tied around his waist from an earlier sequence is used
to lash onto a log on the bank—it comes loose and he’s swept more perilously than before.
Upon arriving at the rapids, the log is jammed between two rocks and Keaton is suspended
over the torrent. As the heroine arrives, Keaton swings sideways to catch her and on the
reverse swing the rope breaks and deposits them both safely on the bank. As the context
shifts, “projects” (intermediary events that lead to an ending event) and “instruments” (log
and rope) acquire unforeseen uses and meanings.
Typology and Examples
Baert’s Dimensions and Modes of Unintended Consequences
Dimension A: what the effect refers to
►
A1: individual effects, type 1 Example: If someone breaks his or her arm while skiing.
►
A2: individual effects, type 2 Example: If parental divorce leaves children emotionally disturbed.
►
A3: social effects
Example: Having a meal with friends leading to intensified feelings of solidarity between us.
Example: Recession causes reduction of wages resulting in less consumption which worsens the recession.


A31: systematic effects
A32: aggregate effects


C31: action has at least one other effect by which the initial intention is fulfilled
C32: action has no other effect by which the initial intention is fulfilled
Dimension B: value attached to the effect from the initial perspective
►
B1: effects are desirable for the actor
►
B2: undesirable
►
B3: neutral
Dimension C: relationship with the initial intention
►
C1: effects fulfill the initial intention
►
C2: effects frustrate the initial intention
►
C3: effects neither fulfill, nor frustrate the initial intention
Dimension D: modes of knowledgeability and awareness
►
D1: unanticipated effects
►
D2: anticipated-but-unexpected effects
►
D3: expected effects
Dimension E: temporal aspects
►
E1: synchronic effects
►
E2: diachronic effects
Heeding Its Power
Economist Rob Norton asserts, “Economists and
other social scientists have heeded its power for
centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular
opinion have largely ignored it.”
► “The concept of unintended consequences is one
of the building blocks of economics.”
► He credits Adam Smith's "invisible hand," as the
most famous metaphor in social science and an
example of a “positive unintended consequence.”
►
The Invisible Hand
►
►
►
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker
that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own selfinterest... [Every individual] intends only his own security, only his own
gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end
which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest, he
frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he
really intends to promote it."
The "invisible hand" represents all the social good incidentally caused
by individuals pursuing their own self-interest.
For example, a businessman wanting to become a millionaire must first
come up with a product that is beneficial, pleasing and desired by
potential customers. By pursuing his own greed, the millionaire
undoubtedly benefits society.
Freakonomics
►
Steven J. Levitt refers to an “unintended benefit”
in his chapter, “Where Have all the Criminals
Gone?”
 “To discover that abortion was one of the greatest
crime-lowering factors in American history is, needless
to say, jarring.”
 “The crime drop was, in the language of economists, an
‘unintended benefit’ of legalized abortion.
 “But one need not oppose abortion on moral or religious
grounds to feel shaken by the notion of a private
sadness being converted into a public good.”
Revenge Affects
►
Even when used to better the world, technology fosters
unforeseen, often unpleasant consequences that Edward
Tenner calls “revenge effects” in his book, Why Things Bite
Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended
Consequences. For example:
 Air-conditioned subways raise platform temperatures by as much
as 10°F.
 Some computer users get painful, wrist-numbing carpal tunnel
syndrome.
 Flood control systems encourage settlement of flood-prone areas,
inviting disaster.
 6% of all hospital patients become infected with microbes they
encounter during their stay.
Computational Thinking
►
►
►
►
Coined in 2006 by Jeanette Wing, the National Science Foundation’s
newly appointed Assistant Director for Computer & Information
Science and Engineering and President's Professor and Head of the CS
Department at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer
Science.
A fundamental skill that will be used by everyone in the world by the
middle of the 21st Century representing a universally applicable
attitude and skill set everyone, not just computer scientists, would be
eager to learn and use.
A way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding
human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer
science.
 Conceptualizing, not programming
 Fundamental, not rote skill
 A way that humans, not computers think
Gives us the power to scale beyond our imagination.
http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/usr/wing/www/publications/Wing06.pdf
Proposed Characterization
►
►
►
►
An unintended consequence occurs when an unexpected and
unintended use is made of a mechanism or formalism—such
as a law, a rule, a regulation, a computer program or even a
custom or an accepted ethical or moral precept—that has
been established in the world.
Presumably the mechanism or formalism was established
with the intent of achieving some particular positive result or
reducing or eliminating something that is considered
negative.
The unintended consequence is almost always different from
that end and in many cases may be contrary to it.
Lastly, exploitation of the established mechanism
undoubtedly creates a definite advantage or profit.
“Gaming the System”
►
One "games a system" when one acts in such a way
that one gains an advantage by exploiting a
mechanism or a rule that was intended for some other
purpose.
“Gaming the System”
►
►
►
Advertising spam is an unintended consequence of
the way the email system works.
A new SAT test preparation
market is an unintended
consequence of instituting
the College Board SAT
subject tests.
Creating a market for dead snakes is an unintended
consequence of a reward program to lower the
snake population.
Evasion, Blackmail and Fraud
►
►
Leo Katz characterizes these 3 “mysteries” in Ill-Gotten Gains: Evasion,
Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law. These particular situations
all strive to circumvent the law in some way to produce ill-gotten gains.
Further, Katz supports that formalism has genuine moral costs—He examines
the letter of the law vs. the spirit or purpose of the law offering the following
examples:


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A woman from some Third World country is visiting in the United States and decides she would
like to live there. One possible way of obtaining permanent residency is to get political asylum.
So she quickly makes up some highly provocative statements that render her persona non grata
at home. Then, she applies for political asylum.
Law in many states seeks to prevent husbands from disinheriting their wives. Determined
husbands have given away their money before they die. Gifts, after all, are not regulated by the
“forced share” statutes.
First amendment protection does not extend to obscene materials. Obscene materials being
something that lacks a sufficient measure of “redeeming social value.” A publisher eager to
distribute some “tantalizing” pictures, but concerned with the law makes them part of a book he
titles, “Sex in Marriage.”
U.S. Bankruptcy law provides that a debtor who has become overwhelmed with financial
obligations, which he has no hope of being able to meet, can make a “fresh start” in life by
declaring bankruptcy. The critical prerequisite to becoming free and clear of this debt is to give
up one’s current possessions. However, you don’t literally give up everything you own; you don’t
give up the shirt on your back. In many states, you don’t have to give up the house you live in,
the furniture and various other stuff in it, or your life insurance and certain kinds of pensions
because they are viewed as the figurative shirt on your back.
Historical Contingency
►
An unintended consequence does not include
historical contingencies, the contingent sequence
of events that occur, at least in part, of preceding
events.
 Slipping on a discarded banana peel.
 Air-conditioned subways raise
platform temperatures by ~10° F.
 A large factor in lowering crime is
connected to legalization of abortion.
 Going to war incurs collateral damage.
 For want of a nail, a shoe was lost
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost
For want of a horse, a rider was lost
For want of a rider, a message was lost
For want of a message, a battle was lost
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost
All for want of a nail
- George Herbert
Legal Process and Procedure vs.
Common Sense
►
►
Studies emerging on the topic have addressed the problem
of process and procedure becoming a deterrent to the very
goals they intend to accomplish.
A law enacted with an express purpose of ensuring fairness
and safety to individuals, is inevitably met with those who
manage to evade or avoid them through loopholes.
 In the development and implementation of various types of
systems, we see a common phenomena emerge.
 Loopholes—a bug in the law. Similarly, when we develop software
systems we end up with bugs in our code.
 For example, an operating system release seldom goes without
ensuing issues that are fixed through software patches. In the
lifetime of a software release the patch history can become quite
large. However, a succeeding new release is regularly made
addressing previous bugs and vulnerabilities.
Law is Suffocating America
►
Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating
America emphasizes that responsibility, not process, is the key ingredient to
action.
 “The characteristic complaint of our time seems to be not that government provides
no reasons, but that its reasons often seem remote from human beings who must
live with the consequences.” (former Justice William Brennan)
 The Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970 promised to ensure safety to every
worker. Since its inception, OSHA has yielded some 4,000 odd regulations dictating
everything from the height of railings (42 inches) to how much a plank can stick out
from a temporary scaffold (no more than 12 inches). There approximately 2,000
safety inspectors to some 6 million workplaces. Several hundred billion dollars have
been spent by industry towards OSHA compliance. In spite of this, the American
workplace is about the same as it was in 1970.
 The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed a rule authorizing a “head tax” on
departing passengers to help fund mass transit to airports. The writer of the rule,
trying to clarify every eventuality, wanted to make sure no city used this airport tax
subsidy and explicitly requires an “exclusive” system and prohibits any “facility
shared with other mass transit.” As a result, New York City, a prime candidate, can’t
link its airport transport into the tracks to Penn Station and Grand Central Station
where it makes most sense, because those tracks would not be “exclusive” per the
rule.
Economic Logic
►
►
Steven E. Landsberg in More Sex is Safer uses the, “logic of economics” to
explore common sense issues and show that individual rational decisions can
combine into surprising and unintended collective results.
Communal-stream principle – “Feel free to pollute your own swimming pool,
but if your sludge spills over into the stream we all share, you should pay for
the damage.” For example:
 A person dropping a banana peel is rarely the same person who slips on that same
banana peel. A wayward piece of newspaper that wraps itself around your ankles is
most likely not a newspaper you just tossed away.
 At dinner ordering a $10 dessert when you are splitting dinner 10 ways between
friends seems like a bargain, but you would never get it if you were by yourself. This
is an example of what Landsberg calls a “poor outcome.” You get a dessert you
normally would not value enough to get, and the group loses collectively as a result.
 Landsberg asserts there is a, “sin of self-restraint.” He poses Martin, a sexually
responsible and prudent individual who decides not to go to a party after seeing a
CDC sponsored ad touting the virtues of chastity. In his absence, a woman with a
mutual interest ends up hooking up with Maxwell, a considerably less prudent and
responsible sexual partner and she contracts AIDS. The point that Landsberg makes
is that the advertisement does a good job of reinforcing the already prudent Martin,
but fails to make an impression on Maxwell.
Conclusion
There is a wealth and breadth of references to
unintended consequence by social, economic and
political theorists.
► Examination of unintended consequence does not
allow us to predict outcomes, but we can still
observe and analyze occurrences and patterns
which emerge.
► Computational methods provide a good way to
study and analyze social phenomena, allowing us
to propose a clearer, more well-defined
characterization in spite of the large variation of its
application.
►
Resources
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2005. 17 Oct. 2004. <http://cs.calstatela.edu/wiki/index.php/Courses/CS_461/Museum_of_unintended_consequence/>
Howard, Philip K. The Death of Common Sense. New York: Random House. 1994.
“Unintended Consequence.” Glossary of Sociological Terms. 7 Sep. 2007.
<http://www.soci.canterbury.ac.nz/resources/glossary/unintend.shtml>. Taken from Tony Bilton’s Introductory
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(1936): 894-904.
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201-210.
Katz, Leo. Ill Gotten Gains. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 1996.
Gladwell, Malcom. "Loopholes for Living". The New Yorker. 15 Apr 1996.
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Feb. 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unintended_consequence>.
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ed. David R. Henderson. 05 Aug. 2002. 26 Feb. 2007.
<http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/UnintendedConsequences.html>.
Wing, Jeannette. “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM, 49.3 (2006): 33-35.
Landsburg, Steven E. More Sex is Safer Sex. New York: Free Press. 2007.
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