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This page explains how we in Why This Way think and talk about cause or causality. Our views on cause are shaped by our rules of communication and ideas about clear thinking, and they relate to and inform our views on responsibility and blame.

Different types of cause

People frequently oversimplify the notion of cause and effect. There are different types of cause, which are not necessarily mutual exclusive.

An example: multiple causes of physical violence

For example, if one person physically assaults another person, it would make sense to say that the person committing the assault caused the other person's injuries. However, there may be other levels of cause which are also operating. If the person who was assaulted persistently insulted or verbally harassed the person before the incident, it might make sense to say that their words or behavior also caused the person to attack them. It is also important to acknowledge that each person has a thought process, shaped by their beliefs, which influences their choices or decisions to act in certain ways.

If the person committing the assault had a belief like: "It is okay to hit a person if they were asking for it." it also might make sense to say that these beliefs caused the assault if they caused the person to make the choices that they did. Conversely, a belief like: "It is wrong to hit someone or escalate an argument even if someone is harassing you." might make a person less likely to physically attack someone in the same circumstance. We do not always have enough information to know the ways in which beliefs influence actions in a specific situation, but these types of cause are nearly always present.

There can be other causal influences too: perhaps both people were under a great deal of stress when the incident occurred. This is a common occurrence as general stress level is known to exacerbate conflict between people. People's emotions and thoughts may also be influenced by their body chemistry, which could be influenced by their genetics, drugs they have taken, food they have eaten, and even factors in the physical environment, like temperature.

These different types of cause can all coexist, even in the case that the cause and effect is relatively clear for each cause. It is conceivable that situations like these could occur in which removing any one of the causes (both people being stressed out, one person insulting the other repeatedly, the other person holding beliefs that it is okay to hit someone, and the other person choosing to hit them) would prevent the outcome from occurring. These observations illustrate a problem with the idea of blame. Blame, when directed at people, tends to explain something bad in terms of a fault or flaw of a person or persons; in this case, most people would probably blame the person who physically attacked the other, but that person might blame the person who was verbally harassing them. Regardless of who is blamed, focusing on blame can lead to a failure to acknowledge the influence of the other factors.

Sometimes, people can engage in dialogue about situations like these in ways that imply that acknowledging one type of cause somehow nullifies or dismisses another type of cause.

In Why This Way, we do not believe this is true. We wish to talk and think about situations like these in ways that acknowledge the different levels of causal agency which can be acting at the same time, in the same situation. It is not that one explanation takes away from the other, but rather, that there are different ways of explaining an event that capture different aspects of the situation. Often, these different aspects of the situation provide different ways for solving or preventing a problem.

Fluke causes

There are also causes of which people cannot reasonably predict the outcome. For instance, say a person asks their friend to pick them up from a party, and on the way, the friend gets in a car accident and gets badly injured. The person might blame themselves, thinking "If I hadn't asked her to pick me up, this wouldn't have happened!" But the person probably could not have predicted the accident from the information they had. There are many small factors like this that lead to each situation, and it is not useful to focus on unpredictable, indirect causes like this one. It would be more useful to focus on causes that could be improved in the future, like how safely people were driving, or the poor placement and/or timing of traffic lights.