Causes, Enablers and the Law

SSRN E-Library Legal Anthropology eJournal, Archives of Vols. 1-3, 2016-2018 (2018)
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Many theories in philosophy, law, and psychology, make no distinction in meaning between causing and enabling conditions. Yet, psychologically people readily make such distinctions each day. In this paper we report three experiments, showing that individuals distinguish between causes and enabling conditions in brief descriptions of wrongful outcomes. Respondents rate actions that bring about outcomes as causes, and actions that make possible the causal relation as enablers. Likewise, causers (as opposed to enablers) are rated as more responsible for the outcome, as liable to longer prison sentences, and as liable to pay higher fines. Moreover, the more actors involved, the more blame volume there is psychologically to be apportioned between them. The implication is that theories and the law in practice, both criminal and civil, may dangerously mismatch the intuitions of those to whom they are supposed to apply. The findings are discussed in light of contemporary psychological theories of how people reason about cause. The paper presents the extended findings supplementary to the conference paper: Frosch, C. A., Johnson-Laird, P. N., Cowley, M. (2007). Don’t blame me your Honor, I’m only the enabler. Proceedings of the Twenty–Ninth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, p. 1755, Mahweh, N. J: Erlbaum. Nashville, USA. *Main findings now cited in the Oxford Handbook of Causal Reasoning.
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