Legal Theory Lexicon: Causation

Claud Mccoid


Causation is one of the primary conceptual resources of lawful evaluation. And for most purposes, we can get together with a notion of causation that is both equally obscure and ambiguous. In the world of medium sized actual physical objects (automobiles, pedestrians, and so on.), our judgments about causation not often count on conceptual niceties. The driver’s carelessness prompted the death of the pedestrian but did not result in Barak Obama to acquire the Iowa caucuses in 2008. In these conditions, different notions of causality converge. The man or woman on the avenue, the scientist, and lawyer can all agree in these conditions that for all useful purposes X prompted Y but not Z. But sometimes the different notions of result in appear apart exposing ambiguities and vagueness in both equally ordinary and lawful communicate about will cause and outcomes. This submit delivers a very primary introduction to causation for law college students (especially to start with-calendar year law college students) with an desire in lawful principle.

Trigger-in-Reality & Legal Trigger

Let’s put the most essential distinction on the desk appropriate absent. Present-day lawful principle and judicial practice believe that there is a distinction amongst lawful result in on the one hand and result in-in-fact on the other. What does that suggest? That’s a massive issue, of class, but we can condition one conclusion straight absent: that X is a result in-in-fact of Y does not entail that X is a lawful result in of Y. Less definitely, that X is a lawful result in of Y does not entail that X is a result in-in-fact of Y. The different means that result in-in-fact and lawful result in can appear apart potential customers numerous to the conclusion that lawful result in merely has absolutely nothing to do with causation, but this turns out to be an exaggeration. I know this all seems very airy. So let us get down to brass tacks!


What do we suggest when we say that X is a result in-in-fact of Y? A lot of law college students understand that the solution to this issue is but-for causation. If it is the scenario that but for X, Y would not have happened, then X is a but-for result in of Y and therefore X is a result in-in-fact of Y. This basic tale works most of the time, and as a tough and prepared rule of thumb, it isn’t 50 percent bad. But it turns out that if you attempt to use but-for causation as a tricky and fast rule for determining whether X is the result in of Y, you will run into problems, quicker or later on. In torts and prison law, but-for causation runs into problems somewhere in the midst of the to start with-calendar year class. In a feeling, the level of this Lexicon submit is to offer a established of resources that for comprehension the troubles that overreliance on but-for causation can result in.

Needed and Adequate Results in

The to start with product in the causation toolkit is the distinction amongst vital and adequate result in. The primary concepts are basic and acquainted. X is a vital result in of Y, if Y would not have happened devoid of X. Ben’s functioning the pink light is a vital result in of the harm to Alice’s car or truck, just in scenario the harm would not have happened devoid of Ben’s obtaining run the light. The thought of “vital result in” is the similar thought expressed by the phrase “but-for result in.”

X is a adequate result in of Y, if Y would have happened so very long as X happened. Alice’s shooting Ben by way of the heart is a adequate result in of Ben’s death, just in scenario the shot via the head by by itself would have prompted Ben’s death. This is accurate, even nevertheless Ben would have died in any case, mainly because Cynthia shot him by way of the head at the similar time Alice shot him by way of the heart.

This tough prepared distinction amongst vital and adequate will cause definitely will not likely do all the vital function.  For instance, Alice’s shooting Ben by way of the heart is not actually adequate, by by itself, no make any difference what other circumstances acquire, to result in Ben’s death.  If Ben experienced been on an operating desk awaiting a heart transplant, then he might have lived irrespective of the slot.  A person suggestion for working with conditions like this is to establish “adequate will cause” as a “vital aspect of a adequate established.”  Matters get even more complex from for the purposes of this introduction the level is merely to see the indadequacy of “vital and adequate result in” as a tool for working with complex conditions in a exact way.

The Role of Counterfactuals

The notions of vital and adequate causation are acquainted to just about absolutely everyone. We use these concepts all the time in day to day existence. But the very familiarity of these ideas generates a temptation to get them for granted. There is an essential feature of these concepts that our day-to-day use of them does not make specific. Equally vital and adequate causation are counterfactual ideas. What does that suggest? “Counterfactual” is merely the fancy name for “what if” contemplating. What if Ben experienced stopped at the pink light? Would the harm to Alice’s car or truck however have happened? What if the Ben experienced gotten fast clinical attention? Would the shot by way of the head however have killed him? Every single assertion concerning a vital or adequate result in can be interpreted as earning a counterfactual (“what if”) assert.

What-if reasoning is by itself acquainted and ordinary. When we say, Ben’s functioning the pink light was a vital result in of the harm to Alice’s car or truck, we are claiming that if the world experienced been different and Ben experienced not run the pink light, then Alice’s car or truck would not have been damaged. We consider what the world would have been like if Ben experienced stopped at the pink light, and Alice experienced proceeded by way of the intersection devoid of becoming struck by Ben’s car or truck. Counterfactual reasoning can get more challenging that this, but for our purposes we can use day to day what-if reasoning as our design of part of counterfactuals in vital and adequate causation.


As soon as we have gotten the notions of vital and adequate will cause, we can go on to the thought of overdetermination. An outcome is overdetermined if it has more than one adequate result in. Acquire the scenario of Alice shooting Ben by way of the heart. We have postulated that the bullet passing by way of the heart was a adequate result in of Ben’s death, but it may not have been a vital result in. Suppose that Alice was a member of a firing squad, and that at the exact similar minute that Alice’s bullet handed by way of Ben’s heart, a further Bullet, fired by Cynthia, handed by way of Ben’s cerebral cortex and that this would have resulted in Ben’s death, even if Alice’s experienced not fired or her bullet experienced skipped. Ben’s death now final results from two adequate will cause, but neither Alice’s shot nor Cynthia’s shot was vital. If Alice experienced not fired, Cynthia’s shot would have killed Ben. If Cynthia experienced not fired, Alice’s shot would have killed Ben.

Overdetermination is essential, mainly because it undermines the thought that but-for causation tells us every thing we will need to know about result in-in-fact. We might say that both equally Alice and Cynthia’s shooting prompted Ben’s death or we might say they were being both equally partial will cause of Ben’s death, but we would not be possible to say that neither Alice nor Cynthia’s shot was the result in.

The firing squad instance was described as a scenario of simultaneous overdetermination—both adequate will cause happened at the similar time. What if Cynthia shot a couple seconds prior to Alice and Ben died prior to Alice’s shot pierced his heart? In that scenario, Cynthia’s shot would have preempted the causal part of Alice’s shot. If Cynthia experienced skipped, then Alice’s shot would have killed Ben. This sort of scenario is sometimes termed preemptive causation.


Overdetermination poses one sort of trouble for but-for causation, coincidence poses a further a different type of difficulty. Suppose the driver of a trolley is dashing. As a end result the trolley is in just incorrect position and time and a tree falls, injuring a passenger. If trolley experienced absent just a little quicker or just a little slower, the tree would have skipped the trolley and the injury would not have happened. Provided these situations, dashing was a but-for result in (a vital result in) of the tree injuring the passenger. So what?  Coincidence is no trouble for result in-in-fact, but it does pose a trouble for the lawful procedure. Intuitions change, but loads of folks are inclined to think that one ought to not be legally responsible for harms that one will cause as a end result of coincidences.

Coincidence is associated to a range of other issues with but-for causation. Acquire our instance of Ben functioning the stoplight and hitting Alice’s car or truck. Operating the stoplight was one but-for result in of this incident, but there are numerous some others. For instance, Alice’s becoming in the intersection was also a but-for result in. And how did Alice appear to be in the intersection at just the time when Ben was functioning the pink light? If her alarm clock hadn’t absent off, she would have slept in and arrived in the intersection very long after Ben, so her alarm clock’s ringing was a further but-for result in. And you know how the tale goes from in this article. As we trace the chain of but-for will cause back again and out, we discover that hundreds and millions and billions of steps and situations are but-for will cause of the incident.

Possibilities to But-For Trigger-in-Reality

Even though “but-for causation” is often presented as the only account of result in in law college lessons, it is much from the only watch.  The alternatives to but-for causation often watch causal associations as involving more than but-for result in.  In fact, some theories of causation sharply distinguish but-for associations from accurate causation.  The greatest way to understand about these alternatives to read the references cited underneath: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article content offer a good beginning level.

Legal Trigger

What can we do about the issues with issues developed by but-for result in? A person way that the law responds is with the thought of lawful result in or proximate result in. In this submit, we are unable to hope to reach a deep comprehension of lawful result in, but we can get a start off. Listed here are some of the concepts that enable me to have an understanding of lawful result in.

Initially, there is a terminological concern: causation may be perplexed with responsibility. “Legal cause” is only partially about result in. We start off with the thought of result in-in-fact (recognized in light of the distinction amongst vital adequate result in). This thought of result in seems, on the surface area, to suit into the construction of different lawful doctrines. So we consider that if a defendant breaches a obligation of care and will cause a hurt, then defendant is legally responsible for the hurt. This works for loads of conditions, but then we start off contemplating about other conditions like overdetermination and coincidence. “Legal cause” is the way that we modify our concepts about lawful responsibility to prevail over the counterintuitive final results that would stick to from a basic reliance on but-for causation. In other words, “legal cause” may be a misnomer. It might be clearer if we made use of the phrase “legal responsibility” (or some other phrase) to describe the means in which we modify the law.

2nd, lawful result in is often linked with the thought of foreseeability. For instance, in coincidence conditions, the hurt (the tree injuring the passenger) is not a foreseeable consequence of the wrongful act (driving the trolley at an excessive speed). If the objective of the law is deterrence, then no good objective may be served by assigning lawful responsibility in conditions the place the outcome is unforeseeable.

Third, lawful result in is sometimes linked with the thought of proximity in time and room. Of class, the phrase “proximate cause” emphasizes this link. We commonly don’t want to maintain defendants responsible for the remote and attenuated outcomes of their steps. We often do want to maintain defendants responsible for the fast and direct outcomes of their steps. “Proximity” seems to capture this level, but an overemphasis on proximity in time and room potential customers to other issues. Some fast effects do not give increase to lawful responsibility: the trolley driver may have begun dashing just seconds prior to the tree fell. Some causal chains that extend for very long distances above good durations do give increase to lawful responsibility: Osama bin Laden’s responsibility for 9/11 would not be vitiated by the fact that he established situations in motions a long time in advance and hundreds of miles absent.


Our investigation of causality so much has elided an essential established of issues—the connections amongst causation and chance. These connections are much also substantial a matter for this submit, but even a superficial evaluation involves that we consider two views–ex ante and ex submit.

Ex submit questions about causation occur in a range of contexts, but for the lawful procedure, a very important context is provided by litigation and especially demo. In numerous conditions, there is no question about causation. When Ben’s car or truck speeds by way of the pink light and hits Alice’s car or truck, we don’t have substantially question about what prompted the harm. But in numerous types of conditions, causation will be in question. Did the chemical result in cancer? Was the desk task the result in of the back again injury? From time to time the evidence will solution these questions with certainty (or perhaps, with some thing that is so shut to certainty that we treat it as certainty for lawful and useful purposes). But in other conditions, the evidence will depart us with a feeling that that the defendant’s motion is more or less possible to have prompted the hurt to the defendant. These kinds of possibilities may be expressed possibly qualitatively or quantitatively. That is, we might say that it is “highly likely” that X prompted Y or we might say that there is a fifty% probability (p = .5) that X prompted Y.

Ex ante issues of causation also occur for the law. For instance, the lawful procedure may be expected to assign a price to a threat of hurt that has not but been recognized. David has been uncovered to asbestos, but may or may not develop cancer. In this scenario, possibilities refer to the probability of foreseeable future situations.

Selection principle and arithmetic have elaborate formal machinery for representing and calculating possibilities. In this brief submit, we are unable to even scratch this surface area, but there are two or 3 bits of notation that every lawful theorist ought to know:

–The letter “p” is often made use of to signify chance. Most law college students come upon this notation in Justice Hand’s renowned feeling in the Carroll Towing scenario (B < PL or “burden less than loss discounted by probability). The notation p(x) = 0.1 can be read “the probability of x equals 1/10.” And the notation, p=0.5 can be read “probability equals one in two.”

–The symbol “|” is often made use of to signify conditional possibilities. Suppose we want to signify the chance that X will happen supplied that Y has happened, we can use this notation: p(X|Y). So we could signify the sentence, “The chance of Cancer supplied Exposure to Asbestos is ten %,” as p(C|EA)

Forms and Tokens

So much, we have been focusing largely on conditions the place an specific occasion of hurt is prompted by some certain wrongful motion. But of class, we often imagine about causation as a more normal marriage. For instance, in science we might converse of “causal legislation.” There is no typical terminology for this distinction: we might use the phrase “individual causation” and “systematic causation.” A person practical little bit of terminology for getting at this thought is to differentiate “types” and “tokens.” Ben’s functioning the rend light at a certain time and site is an celebration token and it is a token of a form of situations, i.e. the form “running a pink light.”

As soon as we have the distinction amongst types and tokens in position, we can define specific causation as a causal marriage amongst a token (e.g. a token celebration) and a further token (e.g. a token motion). And we can define systematic causation as a causal marriage amongst a form (e.g. a form of celebration) and a further form (e.g. a form of motion). Science experiments causal associations amongst types trials often require questions about the causation of one token by a further. This potential customers to a further essential level: the issue whether an specific hurt was prompted by an specific motion will sometimes count on the issue whether a systematic causal marriage exists for instance, the issue whether this factory’s launch of a chemical prompted an specific scenario of cancer may call for a jury to solve a “scientific” issue about systematic causation.


Even nevertheless this is a very long entry by the standards of the Legal Idea Lexicon it is a very compressed and incomplete procedure of the strategy of causation. Provided the way lawful instruction is structured (all around doctrinal fields like torts, prison law, and evidence), most law college students under no circumstances get a actually thorough introduction to causation. Torts may introduce the distinction amongst result in-in-fact and lawful result in prison law, issues of overdetermination and evidence, the marriage amongst chance and causation. If this submit accomplishes everything of price, I hope that it serves as warning—causation is a deep and broad matter about which there is substantially to understand.

Related Lexicon Entries

  • Legal Idea Lexicon 016: Constructive and Normative Legal Idea


  • H.L.A. Hart & Tony Honore, Causation in the Law (2d ed. 1985). For numerous a long time, this was the book on causation and the law. Again in print.
  • Michael Moore, Causation and Obligation (2009).  This is the greatest contemporary procedure, and a have to read for lawful theorists who want to know about causation.
  • L.A. Paul & Ned Corridor, Causation: A User’s Tutorial (Oxford University Press 2013).  Very recent introduction.
  • Causation (Oxford Readings in Philosophy) (Ernest Sosa & Michael Tooley eds. 1993). A fine assortment of essays, with contributions by J.L Mackie, Michael Scriven, Jaegwon Kim, G.E.M. Anscombe, G.H. von Wright, C.J. Ducasse, Wesley C. Salmon, David Lewis, Paul Horwich, Jonathan Bennett, Ernest Sosa, and Michael Tooley.

Methods on the Internet

  • Antony Honore, Causation in the Legislation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Peter Menzies, Counterfactual Theories of Causation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Jonathan Schaffer, The Metaphyiscs of Causation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Richard Wright, The NESS Account of Natural Causation: A Reaction to Criticisms, SSRN.

(This entry was very last modified on June 27, 2021.)

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