A Short Explanation of Blame and Causation

The patient, Bob, died due to severe internal bleeding, loss of consciousness following a blunt force trauma. Bob died because he was hit by a car when he ran over the bridge from behind a wall into the cross-street. John was guilty of negligent homicide because he was drunk when he hit Bob while driving. John ran over Bob because when Bob ran into the street, he couldn’t hit the brakes in time.

Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. Why did Bob die?
    A) The laws of physics
    B) John’s wife left him and he’s been depressed
    C) Policy makers have failed to expedite to adoption of self-driving cars
    D) It was karma for ignoring a drowning child in the river
  2. Why did the writer propose different explanations for Bob’s death?
    A) To illustrate the meaningless of causation in a complex world
    B) He wasn’t sure which was correct
    C) He was being paid by the word
    D) Meaning is tied to purely subjective interpretation, so any one explanation can be correct for the reader

So how do explanations compete for the title of “cause” in informal discussion? It should be clear that “cause” is a meaningful term; we can define it rigorously, but its meaning depends on context. Medically, the first sentence is sufficient; “almost all transportation fatalities… result from blunt force trauma.” This is a form of disguised query, and once we know the goal of the discussion, whether legal, moral, or religious, we can attribute cause. The cause is unclear only because informal discussion and made-up context-less quotations don’t have clear definitions of goals or model levels.

But dependence on goals or model levels needn’t make causes unclear; context and thought can reveal that the author wished to illustrate the reasonableness of varying explanations. If the question is legal, the correct model is different than if the question is religious, or medical.

Blame is not a useful concept in most discussions. Instead, the question is what causal mechanism is relevant for imposing the desired state of the world. If you can get regulators to approve model cars, answer C is relevant, and if you can change human biology, answer A becomes critical instead.

What question we are trying to answer itself the disguised query in many discussions; we incorrectly assume the meaning of cause in a given situation is a single similarity cluster. Instead, the meaning of cause is a set of different causal models depending on the purpose of discussion. In John’s trial, all four of the answers to the first question are irrelevant to the jury’s deliberations of guilt. In rehabilitating John, his depression and his feelings about Bob and the drowning child may be critical. In each case, there is a concrete decision to be made. In one case, the implications of physics on medicine is irrelevant, legal culpability is critical. In the other, technological policy is irrelevant, but self-imposed moral blame is critical.

And hopefully that explanation dissolves the earlier questions.