The Reformation and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“[Every individual] … intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”1 These words of Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his Wealth of Nations describe how market as a social contrivance to facilitate economic transactions leads to public good out of selfish actions by individuals, thus producing an outcome that was not their original intent.

What Adam Smith describes with a well-known metaphor of “an invisible hand” is a classic example of what has since been formulated as the law of unintended consequences by social scientists. Among the many social scientists who have discussed the law of unintended consequences, Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), an American sociologist, may be mentioned as one who gave a most systematic analysis of it. Also known for developing such concepts as “reference group,” “role model,” and “self-fulfilling prophesy,” Merton gave a systematic analysis of the phenomenon of unintended consequences of a purposeful action as a ubiquitous phenomenon observed in all kinds of social contrivances, including organizations and the government.2

In some cases, a purposeful action is taken out of ignorance, or error of judgment, about the consequences of that action. It is clear that a purposeful action in these cases ends up bringing about many unintended consequences. There are also perverse cases where a purposeful action is taken, intentionally neglecting unintended consequences because an individual, or a social organization, is single-mindedly concerned about the immediate consequence of his, or its, action. From a systems perspective, unintended consequences come about because no purposeful action is taken with full understanding of the extent to which that action invites reactions and repercussions in a wide network of social transactions that defines a social system. In other words, it is our myopia about the whole nexus of causes and conditions in which our action is taken that our purposeful action brings about unintended consequences. In this sense, the law of unintended consequences can be considered a corollary of the law of causes and conditions, which underlies the Buddhist view of the world.

As a major historical event, it should not be surprising if the Reformation, which started out as a purposeful action taken by Martin Luther (1483-1546) to reform the Church practice, has brought about many changes and transformations in the character of Western civilization, some of which were not obviously intended by him. When Luther posted a copy of his 95 Theses, or Arguments against the Power of Indulgences, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, his intention was to stimulate academic discussion of the Church practice, for nailing such a document to the door was a conventional way of inviting the town and the university to public discussion of the matter. Thanks to the availability of printing press, the printed version of his 95 Theses became widely circulated, and is said be sold out in two weeks in Germany. In fact, Luther’s call for academic discussion of the Church practice spread far beyond his intention into a full-scale war of pamphlets between Luther’s supporters and his opponents.

Moreover, public discussion of the matter was not limited to academicians and priests. The ordinary people, too, were caught in the frenzy of the debate about the Church practice, for while “the mighty act of Luther was a purely intellectual decision,” as Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), a German historian known for his work The Decline of the West, pointed out, “the common people could only feel, not understand, the element of liberation in it all. They welcomed, enthusiastically indeed, the tearing up of visible duties, but they did not come to realize that these had been replaced by intellectual duties that were still stricter … the mystic experience of inward absolution by faith alone.”3

Once the question of salvation was shifted from the acceptance of the Church doctrine to the individual quest by faith, or the individual reading of the Bible, it was inevitable that a variety of interpretations would open up as to what leads to that salvation. While the Peace of Augsburg (1555) recognized only one Protestant church, the Lutheran, Luther’s action inspired other reformers to start their own denominations and sects based on their readings of the Bible. A wide variety of Protestant denominations and sects that have since sprung up may be another one of unintended consequences of Luther’s action.

There was no doubt that Luther was an effective pamphleteer. In addition to such pamphlets as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) and Passional Christi and Antichristi (1521), which were intended to attack the Church practice, Luther wrote pamphlets on many other subjects, some of which turned out to be quite controversial and ended up bringing about unintended consequences because of the violent and vulgar language he used. For example, Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, which Luther wrote in 1525 in response to the 1524-25 peasants’ revolt against the feudal authority in Germany, contained inflammatory words such as: “Let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, remembering that nothing can be more devilish than a rebel. It is just when one must kill a mad dog.”4 By the time the revolt was crushed, it is said that as many as 100,000 peasants were butchered to death in a frenzy of aristocratic reprisal because of Luther’s violent and vulgar language. Arguably the most controversial pamphlet Luther wrote would be The Jews and Their Lies (1543), which he wrote in frustration about the reluctance of the Jewish people to accept his version of Christian faith. Containing such words as “these miserable, blind and senseless people” to describe the Jewish people, this pamphlet became a source of anti-Semitism in Germany that would culminate in the mass killing of the Jews in Nazi Germany, another case of the law of unintended consequences working in the long span of human history.

While it is easy to blame Luther for his myopia about his actions, it must be admitted that his intention was to reform the corruption of the Church, which was obvious to other Protestant reformers as well. Whatever unintended consequences his actions have brought about—the division among the Christian world that sometimes turned into sectarian conflict and warfare, the overzealous pursuit of personal gain that has brought about the gap in income and wealth between rich and poor, the loss of communal spirit that has come to undermine the viability and cohesion of social systems, to name just a few—it is up to us to start rectifying these unintended consequences. In short, it is up to us to start reforming the Reformation so that we can make Luther’s actions relevant to the realities of the twenty-first century world of global interdependence.

  1. Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Chicago: Britannica, Great Books, 1952. p. 194.
  2. Merton, Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structure, Glencoe: Free Press, 1957.
  3. Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 338.
  4. Gascoigne, Bamber, The Christians, New York: William Morrow & Company, 1977, p. 160.