Cause, "Cause", and Norm

In Pascale Willemsen & Alex Wiegmann (eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Causation. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 123-144 (2022)
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This chapter presents a series of experiments that elicit causal judgments using statements that do not include the verb "to cause". In particular, our interest is in exploring the extent to which previously observed effects of normative considerations on agreement with what we call "cause"-statements, i.e. those of the form "X caused ..." extend as well to those of the form "X V-ed Y", where V is a lexical causative. Our principal finding is that in many cases the effects do not extend in this way, and moreover that the cases where we do find the same pattern are those where the causal verb used has a negative valence of its own. We draw two main conclusions from this finding. First, it reveals how the almost exclusive focus on "cause"-statements in the experimental study of causal judgment has led to findings that are unrepresentative of the full range of ordinary causal thinking, and provides a proof of concept as to how this thinking can be studied in its full variety. Second, the results of our experiments provide significant indirect support for the contention that the effect of moral considerations on agreement with "cause"-statements reflect the fact that these statements are most often used to assign responsibility for an event, and not just to describe the causal structure of what happened. It is not causal judgments in general that result from a process in which normative considerations play a role, but perhaps only those judgments that express a determination of moral responsibility.

Author Profiles

John Schwenkler
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Eric Sievers
Florida State University


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