Asking “Can We Do This?” Isn’t Enough

When we’re looking at a course of action, whether it’s for your business or in your personal life, too many of us get hung up on whether or not we can do something and not whether or not it actually makes sense to do it. This can lead to a lot of (hopefully) unintended consequences that cause those choices to come at a high price (either to ourselves or others).

Thankfully, there has been a growing focus on harm reduction in some circles over the last several years. If you want to try to reduce the negative impact of the things you do as a person, a leader, or a company, you may want to consider answering the following questions before you decide on a course of action.

What is it that we’re trying to accomplish?

Do you know what outcome you’re wanting? Seriously sit down and think about it.

If you can’t answer this question, you may not want to go forward. If the answer is “enrich myself at the expense of others,” you really probably shouldn’t go forward (though, if that’s your motivation, you probably aren’t going to listen to me anyway).

What are the reasons we should do this?

What benefits (to both ourselves and others) are going to be the result of doing what we want to do? Consider 2nd order (and higher) effects here – 2nd order effects are the “consequences of your consequences.” You do Thing A, which causes Thing B to occur. Thing B occurring causes Thing C to occur.

Is there a great deal of benefit to be brought by these actions? That’s generally a positive thing. Just make sure you’re thinking of actual benefits that are likely to happen and not some fantasy that you’ve made up.

What are the reasons we should NOT do this?

What damage are our actions likely to cause? Again, think of 2nd order effects.

If the damage outweighs the benefits, is this something you should really be doing?

Eliminating poverty is a great benefit to the world. Doing it by turning poor people into soylent green? Notsomuch.

Before you accuse me of jumping the shark with the soylent green reference, keep in mind that a lot of eugenics based “solutions” have been offered (and even attempted) as answers to things that powerful people have seen as societal problems.

What is going to prevent us from doing this? What challenges are we likely to face?

The reason to ask this is twofold – first, it gets you mentally prepared for some of the issues that might come up. Second, it may give you a look into the reason this thing hasn’t been done before

It may be that nobody has come up with a good solution. If you have one, by all means, go for it. However, it may have not been done because the “solution” is much worse from a harm perspective than the problem you’re wanting to solve.

When you do this, consider how you are likely to overcome these issues and apply the same benefit vs harm analysis to them.

The bottom line is that your actions have consequences and you are morally responsible for the things that you do in this world. You can scream “the purpose of a company is to make money” until you’re blue in the face, but that will not absolve you of the responsibility for the harm that you cause in the search of profit.

There’s a quote attributed to Chief Seattle that I’ve found to be very true – We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children.

Life isn’t a game where the point is to have the highest score when you die. You can’t take your money with you, but you most certainly leave behind the consequences of your actions for others to live with. We need to start realizing that and act appropriately.


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