There is a growing consensus that norms matter for ordinary causal attributions. This has important implications for philosophical debates over actual causation. Many hold that theories of actual causation should coincide with ordinary causal attributions, yet those attributions often diverge from the theories when norms are involved. There remains substantive debate about why norms matter for causal attributions, however. In this paper, I consider two competing explanations—Alicke’s bias view, which holds that the impact of norms reflects systematic error (suggesting that ordinary causal attributions should be ignored in the philosophical debates), and our responsibility view, which holds that the impact of norms reflects the appropriate application of the ordinary concept of causation (suggesting that philosophical accounts are not analyzing the ordinary concept). I investigate one key difference between these views: the bias view, but not the responsibility view, predicts that “peripheral features” of the agents in causal scenarios—features that are irrelevant to appropriately assessing responsibility for an outcome, such as general character—will also impact ordinary causal attributions. These competing predictions are tested for two different types of scenarios. I find that information about an agent’s character does not impact causal attributions on its own. Rather, when character shows an effect it works through inferences to relevant features of the agent. In one scenario this involves inferences to the agent’s knowledge of the likely result of her action and her desire to bring about that result, with information about knowledge and desire each showing an independent effect on causal attributions.
From the Conclusion:
Alicke’s bias view holds that not only do features of the agent’s mental states matter, such as her knowledge and desires concerning the norm and the outcome, but also peripheral features of the agent whose impact could only reasonably be explained in terms of bias. In contrast, our responsibility view holds that the impact of norms does not reflect bias, but rather that ordinary causal attributions issue from the appropriate application of a concept with a normative component. As such, we predict that while judgments about the agent’s mental states that are relevant to adjudicating responsibility will matter, peripheral features of the agent will only matter insofar as they warrant an inference to other features of the agent that are relevant.
In line with the responsibility view and against the bias view, the results of the studies presented in this paper suggest that information relevant to assessing an agent’s character matters but only when it warrants an inference to a non-peripheral feature, such as the agent’s negligence in the situation or her knowledge and desire with regard to the outcome. Further, the results indicate that information about an agent’s knowledge and desire both impact ordinary causal attributions in the scenario tested. This raises an important methodological issue for empirical work on ordinary causal attributions: researchers need to carefully consider and control for the inferences that participants might draw concerning the agents’ mental states and motivations.
The research is here.