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Causality and Blame

The world is endlessly complex, intricate and surprising. Conceptually we find that hard to cope with and consequently we spend a lot of effort in trying to simplify it. Some of our models of the world and its component parts have proved very useful first approximations and have aided our general understanding. However sometimes our simplifying assumptions lead unwittingly to errors. One area where we must be extremely careful is causality. Behind every outcome we would like to believe there is one, or at worst one predominant, cause.

Tolstoy nicely captured the argument in War and Peace.

“When an apple ripens and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it………?”

If a car crashes at speed, under the control of an intoxicated driver, on a wet rainy night, on a severe bend where the road is unlit, what caused the accident? Most reasonable people would concede there were a number of contributory factors and we would be unwise to speculate on the cause.

If a young man who is obviously intoxicated continues to drink at a bar in the company of his friends, and the barmaid fully aware of his state continues to serve him, and then he walks out on the road in front of the bar and is run down by a car driven at speed being pursued by a police vehicle, who is to blame?

Unfortunately it seems to be a part of the human condition to blame someone!

[Of course we are often also faced with something like the antithesis of this problem when those who perceive themselves as the perpetual victims would never admit any personal culpability and expect the state to prevent them doing harm to themselves. Our justice system is now bogged down with thousands of regulations designed to do just that!]

As I have related in previous essays, one of the common problems we have when discussing causality as it relates to human behaviour is to overplay the role of “free will”. We largely subscribe to Aristotle’s contention that, “man is the originator of his own actions”. But this is not the case. All of us build behavioural repertoires. What such repertoires contain is largely determined by:

  • Our genetics, and
  • Our socialisation.

And then depending on the particular environmental cue we automatically use one of our learned behaviours whilst our rationalising brain invents reasons for us why we might have logically “chosen” to act in the way that we did. From these mistaken beliefs we then assign intent to the behaviour of others.

In this way the error in our attempts to determine causality are often compounded. Firstly we rush to isolate a single cause when there are multiple contributing factors, and if we suspect that such a cause is due to aberrant human behaviour we then fall into the trap of attributing intent to the person who has supposedly offended even where none exists.

The founder of the field of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby, codirector University of California’s Santa Barbara’s Centre for Evolutionary Psychology, writes:

“Given an outcome we dislike, we ignore the nexus and trace ‘the’ causal chain back to a person. We typically represent the backward chain as ending in – and the outcome as originating in – the person. Locating the ‘cause’ (blame) in one or more persons allows us to punitively motivate others to avoid causing outcomes we don’t like (or to incentivise outcomes we do like). More despicable, if something happens that many regard as a bad outcome, this gives us the opportunity to sift through the causal nexus for the one thread that colourably leads back to our rivals (where the blame obviously lies).”

Tooby points out that “lamentably, much of our species’ moral psychology evolved for moral warfare, a ruthless zero-sum game.”

When we “blame” others we are normally relying on such blame to cause to arise feelings of guilt in them. We are then hopeful that such guilt will influence them to modify their behaviour in a way that suits our purposes. It is a form of emotional manipulation well described by Narciso and Burkett in their great little book Declare Yourself (subsequently republished as Relating Redefined).

Guilt, on the other hand is one of the worst of what Buddhist describe as the “afflictive emotions”. It often leads to personal ineffectiveness and can easily spiral into depression.

It is easy to see how our simplistic notions regarding causality, combined with our inherent tendency to attribute intent to human behaviour can lead to tragic results.

To read a little more about blame and victimhood revisit one of my previous essays at Putting Aside Blame.docx

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2.   By Dave Bowman on Feb 2, 2014 | Reply

    Ted – what a refreshing article – I had not heard of Tooby but I can relate to his comments! One aspect of my management training some 20 odd years ago dealt with subject in some detail and described the tendency to blame others for our mis-fortune as “Attribution Theory”. I have lost cost of the number of staff who would tell me breathlessly that ” She said this because she wanted to hurt me” or something similar. Even when I pointed out that “she” couldn’t have had that intent because “she” was unaware of the circumstances etc, individuals would persist in their belief despite compelling evidence to the contrary. We had a simple little mantra to describe this …. There are three levels in the human condition .. “Laying blame, making excuses and accepting personal responsibility for your actions” … easy said, hard for some to grasp but essential for wellbeing if you want to function in a complex world.

    Another great article Ted. Thanks again.

  3.   By Greg Brown on Feb 2, 2014 | Reply

    Your blog this week is right on the money Ted. Blame has become an instrumental part of society. We now have universities churning out blame professionals that we contract and pay big money to. Their job is to prove who is to blame. Almost all professions now have a double degree with blame as a key part, as an example, engineer / blame specialist. Of course most people recognise them as lawyers but in reality their job is to either tell us who is to blame or to make sure if something goes wrong, we can’t be blamed.

    Blame is so built into our psyche that even God is now being left out of it. When a cyclone destroyed someone’s home 100 years ago it was called an act of God. Now it is human induced climate change. I have always thought this behaviour was the grandest example of our egos run a muck. We have evolved to a point where we have convinced ourselves that we can control the whole universe with our actions. What you are suggesting here Ted is that there is an even more sinister motive. Manipulating others to behave the way we want them to. It makes a lot of sense to me. Just a bit sad that despite all the rhetoric about how the law is here to protect us, in many instances this is not the real objective. Sadly, all to often truth becomes the victim in our desire to make others comply with our wishes. May the best lawyer win.

  4.   By Matt Smith on Feb 4, 2014 | Reply

    As with any serious philosophical issue like this, you can look into it and find no answer. It’s thought provoking but provides no way forward. I do not grasp the last sentence of the first comment, in relation to the blog content. Which is it that should be grasped out of the 3 levels? It seems the third level is implied to be correct. However this undermines the idea presented I.e. that one person is most often not solely to blame (or therefore accept responsibility). It is management course speak that, not unlike management theory, presents a rudimentary model that barely scratches the surface of philosophical issues.

    Because the limitations of evidential experience and therefore reality (as much as we can rationally corroborate what is real) is limited to rationality (anything else is whatever you want is to be), then a system of law that operates to a standard is in place until a better solution is discovered. However, I stop short of saying that there is free will and right and wrong, as i lean towards incompatibilist determinist position.

    When it comes to blame, well, a senior manger is rewarded in advance (by renumeration) for the ‘potential’ of being the one to take the blame, hence accountability. This provides the motive to be a cog in the gears to possibly influence what would otherwise be. But probably not the blame/cause. Again, there appears to be no other solution.

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