Monday, July 18, 2016

Mike Pence and Causality

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana has been in the news since his selection as Donald Trump's vice-presidential nominee.  Of course, this means that some of his more surprising statements over the years have suddenly found themselves highlighted.  For instance, "Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill."

It seems so unlikely that anyone would write such a thing (even back in 2001), doesn't it?  But in fact the above sentence is a direct quotation from a "Mike Pence for Congress" campaign page which you can find archived here.  (H/T The Weekly Sift for this link.)  Looking at the rest of the article helps understand what Mr Pence was trying to say.  His very next sentence begins, "In fact, two out of every three smokers do not die from a smoking-related illness..."  Thus, even though he acknowledges that there are such things as smoking-related illnesses and that they are frequently fatal, Mr Pence will not say that "smoking kills".  What are the truth conditions for that statement, then, in Mr Pence's view of causality? Presumably, he believes that one can truly claim "smoking kills" only if 100 percent of smokers die from smoking-related illnesses - that "causality" only exists at all if it is invariably effective.

Why would someone adopt so narrow a view of causality?  I think one reason may be the natural link that we make between causality and moral responsibility.  If something bad happens, we tend to ask: "What brought this about?" (causality question) and "Whose fault was it?" (moral responsibility question), and we expect that answering the first will tell us something about the answer to the second.  But this only works if the answer to the first (causality) question is clear and unequivocal.   So  that those who feel that moral responsibility is a clear, yes-or-no thing may tend to feel the same about causality.

Hence, for instance, the endless discussion about whether we can be sure that such-and-such an extreme weather event was "caused by global warming".  Draw the meaning of this phrase sufficiently tight, and its truth conditions can hardly ever be satisfied.   Similarly, and sadly closer to recent tragedies, with questions about whether some abuse or attack was "caused by racism"  or "caused by religion".

Causality is a more complicated business than the Pence model - an invariable linkage between a single cause and a single effect - suggests.  And, it seems to me, sticking to the Pence model of causality skews our moral understanding, so that we focus our attention more on rights and wrongs that can be understood individualistically and less on those that are embedded in the structure of our socioeconomic system.  We swat the gnats and miss the camels.      

I fear that many important issues of our time are camels.

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