Causality Essay

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When attributing moral and legal responsibility or strict liability to an agent, both the law and morality presuppose a causal connection between agents and outcomes. Justice requires such a connection in order for blame to be apt and punishment deserved. However, in both the law and morality, not all causes are relevant and, of those that are, not all are equally blameworthy. Each person is the cause of their shadows, digestion, and the displacement of nearby air molecules; however, such instances are typically morally and legally irrelevant. Of relevant causal relations, people are held responsible (to varying degrees) for harms that result from both direct and indirect influence, intentional and negligent actions, and even omissions. The degree to which agents are held accountable depends not only on the gravity of the harm, but also on the way in which the agent was causally connected to that harm.

Ways of Causing and Analyzing Causal Relations

There are many ways an agent can causally contribute to significant outcomes. Sometimes an agent is the direct and proximate cause of the relevant state of affairs. For example, if Jesse beats Jodi about the head, which results in Jodi’s brain damage, Jesse is directly and solely responsible for Jodi’s injuries.

An agent may play an indirect role in an outcome. For example, while Adolf Eichmann did not murder anyone directly, he was a significant player in a group effort to exterminate millions of innocent people.

Some consider whether an agent was a necessary cause or simply the actual cause ethically and legally relevant. It might be the case that the particular agent was necessary for the relevant consequences to follow. For instance, some might say that were it not for Robert Oppenheimer’s group, the atomic bomb would not have been built. This “but for” analysis is called “counterfactual analysis,” and it aims to establish the requisite causal connection by hypothetically removing the alleged cause to see whether the effect still follows.

Such particularity is not necessarily required. Perhaps the agent was the actual cause of some state of affairs, but other agents would have caused similar outcomes had the particular agent not done so. For instance, perhaps Adolf Hitler’s scientists were close to completing an atomic bomb and would have done so if Oppenheimer’s group had not done it first. Theorists call this the NESS condition—a necessary element of a sufficient set. In instances when an outcome is over determined (more than one sufficient cause is present) or jointly determined (individual cogs being fungible), a NESS condition analysis can prove helpful.

Sometimes, intentional interference is causally relevant. In the above scenario, Oppenheimer and colleagues built the actual bomb in so doing they prevented a worse regime from acquiring the bomb. Had they not built the bomb, some might argue, their omission would causally affect others’ abilities to cause harm.

Because both action and inaction can causally contribute to or prevent various significant effects, both the law and morality must parse the intricacies of the causal relationship between agent and outcomes very carefully, and oftentimes, on a case-by-case basis. For this analysis, one can refer to one of the first schemas of causation to illuminate many of the intuitions about causal responsibility.

Four Types of Causes

Aristotle contended that there were four distinct types of causes that could be found throughout nature. The formal cause of an object or an event is its form and nature. For example, the horse neighs because it is part of its form and nature (as opposed to that of a sheep, which would not neigh). The material cause is what constitutes the objects(s) in question. The horse’s vocal cords, nasal passages, and exhalation technique are all subject to the flesh and bone of the horse. The efficient cause is whatever in fact initiates movement or change. If the horse jumps as a reflexive reaction to a gadfly bite, the gadfly is the efficient cause of the commotion. If the horse elects to neigh later, the horse is the efficient cause of the neighing. The final cause is similar to the formal cause in that each looks to the kind of thing being evaluated. The final cause of an object or event is its purpose or telos. The final cause of scissors is to cut well and the final cause of an acorn is to become an oak tree. While most commonsense discussions of causation are limited to Aristotle’s efficient cause, referring to the other three can enlighten some peculiarities about how causation is considered in ethics and law.

Consider the material cause first. Imagine that Tess displays what appears to be a gun in front of a police officer and, as a result, is arrested for attempted murder. As soon as the police officer recognizes that the confiscated “weapon” is, in fact, a water gun, the officer releases Tess. The material nature of the object renders the charge of attempted murder inappropriate. Typical guns are lethal because they are dry, composed of metal, and primed for an internal explosion, which forcefully launches bullets from them at high speeds. The material nature of a water gun renders it insufficient for such a causal relation.

It is easy to see how the final cause comes into play with both ethics and criminal justice. On the one hand, the intention of an agent is often salient. Many legal statutes require that a perpetrator have mens rea (guilty mind) as well as actus rea (guilty act). Oftentimes when agents are justly punish, their guilt is grounded in knowingly or intentionally aiming at some effect or goal. The exceptions to this intuitive practice include strict liability cases.

The formal cause is pertinent since an agent must have certain capacities that are adequately developed and available for use in order to qualify for evaluation. For example, children are rarely considered eligible for legally sanctioned punishment given that their rational capacities remain underdeveloped. Once we are confident that an individual’s reason has been sufficiently actualized, that individual can be considered as having the requisite makeup to be held morally and legally accountable (all things being equal).

In both ethics and law, agents are held accountable for states of affairs they bring about. However, agents may efficient-causally contribute to harm in various degrees. In addition, agents might not bring about harm at all, though they were the efficient cause of a change in risk or probability of such a harm coming to fruition. Both morality and the law take each aspect into account when assessing causal responsibility.

Actual Harm and Negligence

For example, imagine that identical twins, Pat and Sam, meet up for a drink. Pat and Sam have the same amount to drink, which is too much for them to drive legally. Nevertheless, both elect to drive home. They note that their homes are close by and the roads are straight, well lit, and rarely inhabited by other motorists or pedestrians at this time of night. On the way home, Pat is arrested for drunk driving. Sam, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Sam’s reflexes were too impaired to stop the car before hitting a pedestrian. Pat spends the night in “the drunk tank” sobering up and has to pay a fine. Sam, on the other hand, is found guilty of manslaughter and serves 15 years in prison.

In ethics and criminal justice law, actual consequences matter. In such instances, the agent is said to be a “substantial factor” in the harm coming about. Pat is morally lucky in comparison to Sam. Pat is not equally guilty because Pat cannot be blamed for killing someone—there is no causal connection between Pat and someone’s death. Pat is guilty of increasing the probabilities that someone would be harmed. Sam is guilty of the same negligence as well as the actual killing of a human being.

The notion of causation is an important one for law and ethics. Whether someone actually caused, risked causing, intentionally caused, or negligently caused harm to others makes a significant difference to the agent’s guilt and desert of punishment.


  1. Barnes, Jonathan, ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  2. Feinberg, Joel. Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  3. Hart, H. L. A. and Tony Honoré. Causation in the Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Moore, Michael S. Causation and Responsibility: An Essay in Law, Morals, and Metaphysics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Stapleton, Jane. “Choosing What We Mean by ‘Causation’ in the Law.” Missouri Law Review, v.73/2 (2008).
  4. Wright, Richard W. “Causation, Responsibility, Risk, Probability, Naked Statistics, and Proof: Pruning the Bramble Bush by Clarifying the Concepts.” Iowa Law Review, v.73. (1988).

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