Causation and the normative

Georgie Statham, Van Leer (Polonsky)

An increasingly large body of work in the philosophy of causation argues that (at least in some circumstances) our causal judgements are influenced by normative considerations. The idea is that we are more likely to cite abnormal than normal events as causes, where the relevant notion of ‘normal’ includes both statistical and moral/legal norms. I build on this work by revealing two other ways in which our normative considerations can affect our causal judgements.

Consider this question: Can we completely replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources? This is a causal question, so we might assume that the correct answer is a matter of fact. I challenge this assumption. Using the causal modelling framework, I show that people who give different answers to the above question can be characterized as holding different causal models. The models vary in two respects: i) where the line is drawn between the system of interest and the background and ii) how the variables are causally related. Importantly, both of these differences arise as a result of people’s different normative commitments. I therefore conclude that in complex, normatively loaded situations, our understanding of the causal structure can’t be separated from our normative commitments.