September 23, 2022

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A calm horse stands in a field on a summer day.
A Newfoundland pony, Little Catalina, died after it was fed too many apples. (Submitted by Jessica Boyd)

This column is an opinion by Ainsley Hawthorn, a writer and cultural historian in St. John’s. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

“Your Kindness Could Kill.”

That’s the sobering message of the sign that has stood outside the horse paddock at Driftwood Acres in Stephenville, N.L., since one of the farm’s endangered Newfoundland ponies, Little Catalina, died after being overfed apples by passersby.

Little Catalina’s death is heartbreaking not only because it was preventable but because the people who killed her almost certainly thought they were helping her.

If there’s something we can all learn from this sad event, it’s that doing the right thing requires more from us than just good intentions. 

From an early age, we learn to judge people’s actions based mainly on their motives.

After watching a puppet show, infants as young as 10 months old will reach for a puppet that knowingly helped another character in preference to one that didn’t.

By the time they’re ready for preschool, toddlers will intervene when an adult punishes a puppet for accidentally knocking over a block tower they built together. If the puppet knocked the tower over on purpose, on the other hand, it’s on its own.

As adults, not only do we think it’s less ethical when someone hurts us intentionally, we see the harm itself as greater than when someone hurts us accidentally.

Subconscious thinking

In one study, participants were given two versions of a scenario in which a river dried up, afflicting a community with drought. In the first version of the scenario, the river went dry due to a lack of rain in the mountains, while, in the second version, a man who lived in a town nearby had diverted the flow.

The study’s participants were then asked to estimate the community’s financial losses due to the drought.

For the version where the drought was caused by lack of rain, they pegged the value of the community’s damages more or less accurately at $2,753. For the version where the water was diverted, though, they projected damages of $5,120 — almost double what they assumed when they believed the drought was accidental.

This is called the harm-magnification effect: we subconsciously amplify the fallout of wrongs done on purpose.

Objectively, though, an injury is no less severe whether it’s inflicted maliciously or unwittingly. History is replete with examples of well-intended plans gone horribly awry.

Prohibition in various parts of North America from the 1870s to the 1930s enriched and empowered organized crime.

A black and white photo showing four men in hats and overcoats standing, their arms by their sides.
Gangsters Ed Diamond, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, Thomas ‘Fatty’ Walsh and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano are featured in this archival photo. Prohibition fuelled a huge expansion in organized crime, as local gangs collaborated with those from other regions to establish shipping systems and set prices for bootlegged alcohol. (The Associated Press)

When it became illegal for legitimate businesses to sell alcohol, the mob stepped in to fill the vacuum, and they used the profits they made from bootlegging to ramp up their more violent activities.

The Smash Sparrows campaign that was instituted in China in 1958 was meant to protect farmers’ crops by eliminating the Eurasian tree sparrows that were believed to be consuming large amounts of the country’s grain. In the absence of sparrows, though, crop-eating insects flourished, which led, in part, to the Great Chinese Famine of 1959.

LISTEN | The St. John’s Morning Show dug into the death of the Newfoundland pony Little Catalina: 

St John’s Morning Show11:24Fence feeding leads to Newfoundland Pony fatality

A local farm owner is pleading with the public to stop feeding horses and ponies, after one of her mares died tragically on the weekend.

India’s child labour ban, perversely, increased child labour. Children weren’t working because they wanted to, but because they needed to provide for themselves or their families. When the ban came into effect, it became riskier to employ minors, and employers lowered their wages to compensate, with the result that child labourers had to work more hours to earn the same amount of money.

Ignorance and errors

Why do well-intentioned actions sometimes have such disastrous outcomes?

According to American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who did an analysis of unanticipated consequences in the 1930s, the most common reasons are ignorance and errors.

A woman in glasses holding a coffee and wrapped in a blanket snuggles with the muzzle of a pony in a dark in the middle of the night.
Farm owner and veterinarian Jessica Boyd with her pony, Little Catalina. She says well-intentioned people caused the pony’s death. (Submitted by Jessica Boyd)

In Little Catalina’s case, most people know that horses love apples, but few — other than horse owners and veterinarians — are aware that too many apples can kill a horse, whose sensitive gastric system can be catastrophically upset by sudden changes in diet.

According to Merton, we can also make the mistake of allowing short-term rewards to distract us from long-term impacts. It’s easier to see the happiness a treat like an apple gives a horse today than it is to imagine the harm that unchecked feeding by strangers may cause to that animal down the road.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that virtue requires not just good intentions but also practical wisdom — enough knowledge of the world to predict, with reasonable accuracy, the consequences of one’s actions.

Someone who means well but is self-absorbed, prejudiced, impulsive, or reckless, according to Aristotle, bears the responsibility for the negative impact their ill-informed actions may have on others.

So behaving morally is not just a matter of what’s in our hearts but what’s in our heads.

Are we experienced and informed enough to game out any ripple effects our actions may have? Do we have the humility to recognize the gaps in our knowledge and defer to expert input?

Most of the world’s problems are caused not by bad people, but by good people acting short-sightedly.

There are many ways our kindness can kill.

Let’s never become so arrogant that we put our intentions ahead of their impact.

Do you have a strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue in the news, or change how people think about an issue? We want to hear from you. Here’s how to pitch to us.

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