By Roland Watson

I want to begin our exploration of life with an idea - the idea that all men, and, obviously, women, are created equal. Indeed, this is the basic principle of life. However, it is not the subject of this article.

Ideas have consequences

This article is about the fundamental rule of life, which is that actions have consequences. It is fundamental because it is a simple fact. To quote the dastardly cat in the movie, Babe: "It's just the way things are."

A principle, on the other hand, is different. It is a guide for how we should live our lives. Of course, in a way equality is also a fundamental fact. But, in the real world, it's not. The world is characterized by inequality, not equality. Hence, we need to put the principle into practice.

Thomas Jefferson's idea, his statement of the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence, has powerful consequences. For instance, if you think that you are better than other people, you're wrong. If someone in your life thinks that they are better than you, they're wrong.

As another example, Martin Luther King's idea, the core idea in his "I have a dream" speech, that blacks can overcome their oppression by whites, that centuries of real-life experience notwithstanding, blacks and whites are and always will be equal, is a modern restatement of Jefferson.

Of course, both men were more than just proponents of ideas. They were also men of action: Jefferson, through his role in the American Revolution, and King as the leader of the civil rights movement.

They both demonstrated that actions speak louder than words. Indeed, their courage to act is what gave their ideas power and resonance. This is what made them real, more than just talk. This is what, ultimately, convinced us of their truthfulness.

Actions have consequences

As this makes clear, it is not only ideas that have consequences. The greater effects usually derive from what we actually do. Indeed, as I just said, this is the fundamental rule of life. Everything you do - everything anyone does - has consequences.

What I'm talking about here isn't actually that original. Through such ideas as you sow what you reap, and karma, it's clear that people all around the world have understood this for ages. So, the question is, if this is so well recognized, then why do most people, through their actions, demonstrate that it isn't obvious to them at all? You can even say that our greatest failure as a species is our inability to predict the consequences of our actions.

While seeing into the future is impossible, you can achieve some accuracy in forecasting. For example, if you jump off a cliff, you know you will hit the bottom in a few seconds. You do not have to be Nostradamus to understand this. We can all navigate - if only partially - the rivers of cause and effect.

This failing is so pervasive, it's worth giving a few examples.

Many problems around the world are caused by cultural misunderstandings, specifically, when people in positions of authority think that they understand a foreign culture when in fact they do not. For the United States, we only need to think of all the mistakes the CIA has made over the years, in one country after another. This raises the question, if "Intelligence" is regularly wrong, then what about the rest of us?

I believe that wisdom is the combination of education and experience. However, although both are necessary, the second is more important. Said another way, a life of limited experience leads to limited understanding. You must experience life to understand it! People with narrow lives have narrow minds, and often wide biases.

Unfortunately, most of the people who obtain positions of power around the world have had privileged, cloistered lives. They are raised in, and usually never leave, worlds that intentionally insulate them from the rest, and the bulk, of human society and experience. They interact only with people such as themselves.

The consequences of this, of the concentration of political, business, media, even religious power, in the social elite, and of their having little understanding, indeed, often great misunderstanding, of the publics that they are supposed to serve, have been disastrous.

The dimensions of consequences

The next thing that I want to do is make a few simple points about consequences. First, they can be purposeful, or unintended. Secondly, they can be limited, or severe. Thirdly, they can be felt immediately, or take a long time to become manifest. And fourthly, they can be of short-term all the way through to limitless duration.

For the third, some consequences take years or even decades to become evident. Indeed, recognition of this fact is the foundation for something called the Precautionary Principle. Put simply, it says: Be careful!

As another example, consider the enormous unforeseen and unintended consequences of technology. Revolutionary improvements in health care and food production enabled great increases in population, but this in turn led to massive social pressures, civil conflict, habitat destruction and species extinction.

Of course, inaction also has consequences, as with the results of a planetary-wide lack of urban and environmental planning, which - I might add - is the responsibility of the aforementioned elites! To this we can add their failure to act on climate change and global warming.

Probably the greatest consequences of all, though, and both of action and inaction, derive from the process of parents raising their children. Simply with better parenting, many, many problems could and would be avoided.

What about when actions don't have consequences?

Now, some people might say that in many cases actions do not have consequences, as with individuals who commit crimes and are never caught and punished for them; or, with parents who do a poor job raising their children. What about them? Do they pay a cost or not?

In fact, the greatest consequences of our actions are their effects on ourselves, on who we are. We are what we do.

If you kill someone and get away with it, you may have gotten away with murder, but that does not mean there is no consequence. You are now a murderer. The killing can never be reversed, and you will have to live with that, with who you are and what you have done, for the rest of your life.

Or, if you do a terrible job with your children, there is no way that you, or quite possibly they, can escape from that either.

Human adaptability, and cycles

The counter to our inability to predict the consequences of our actions is our adaptability. Without it, the mistakes we make would wipe us out.

However, this adaptability, which is touted as one of our strengths, is really just a mask for this weakness. It would be much better to avoid problems rather than cause them and then have to adapt to them. As this suggests, we are unable to learn, or we learn only partially, from our mistakes.

Finally, a broader issue of the rule that actions have consequences is its linkage with, actually the probability that it is the driving force behind, the wide prevalence of repeating cyclical patterns.
Actions have consequences, which lead to reactions and further consequences, often following a circular route back to the beginning. This raises the question, though: what is it, precisely, that is cycling?

In the next article, I will begin to consider the question of how the universe - and everything in it - is organized.

© Roland Watson 2013