Two mass shootings occurred recently in the U.S. When tragedies like this occur, we naturally seek to understand the cause of such violence, and it is right for us to do so. Violence rarely, if ever, happens in a vacuum. Rather, there are causes, often multiple and complex, driving the problem.
Cause and Effect
So, it is right for us to seek out the cause of things, such as violence, because the more we understand and address such causes, the more we gain a measure of control over our life.
And it is, indeed, possible to bring about positive change by addressing the cause of social problems.
For example, by understanding the cause of diseases like cancer, we can take steps, such as decreasing our exposure to cigarette smoke, to reduce our risk of cancer. You can read more about this here.
Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash
As another example, we can take steps to reduce the prevalence of poverty in our nation by understanding and addressing its causes. We are currently doing this. You can read more about this here and here.
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Address the Cause; Address the Problem
Just as we can work to reduce instances of cancer and poverty, we can also work to reduce violence of all kinds. We have, in fact, been doing this in many different ways both in the United States and in the world as a whole. You can read more about this here and here.
Gun violence is a specific type of violence, and like other social problems, it also has various individual and social causes. If we address the causes of gun violence, we can reduce gun violence. It may be difficult, and it may require us to change some of our thinking habits and practices, but reducing gun violence is possible. Therefore, falling into hopelessness, denial and apathy over this social problem is neither wise nor congruent with reality.
At this point, you may expect for me to write about possible causes of gun violence. We will indeed explore some possible causes, but before we do that, I want to focus on something else: I want to focus on the concept of causality itself—that is, I want to focus on what it means to say one thing causes another.
The concept of causality may sound a little abstract and philosophical, but I assure you that it is a pretty easy concept to understand, and understanding it will greatly help us think more clearly about the causes of gun violence, which will enable us to address the issue more effectively.
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Why Determining Causality Takes Careful Thought
At first, it seems easy to determine the cause of something. After all, a cause (let’s call the cause A) occurs before an effect (let’s call the effect B) and makes that effect happen. That should be easy to do determine, right?
Let me give an example to illustrate why it is not always quite as easy as it seems to determine which A causes B.
Illustration of Causality
Imagine that you come home from work one day, and as you walk in the door of your house, you develop a splitting headache. What is the cause of your headache?
Was it the act of walking in the door? Was it the long commute home from work? Was it the twenty emails you received at work? Was it the extra salty french fries you ate for lunch? Was it some random fluctuation in your body temperature or blood pressure? Was it the guy who honked loudly at you as you took a walk on your lunch break? Was it the long walk you took in the hot sun yesterday? Is it all of these? Is it something else entirely?
As you can see, determining something like the cause of a headache can be difficult because hundreds, perhaps thousands, of events happen to you in a day before you develop a headache. It can be difficult to isolate which one or ones of those specifically caused the headache.
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Just because one thing (A) happened before something else (B), doesn’t mean A caused B. This kind of thinking represents a logical fallacy called false cause. False occurs when someone argues merely (and without further corroborating evidence) that because A happened before B, A caused B.
For example, let’s say I am walking down the street. A car backfires, and I sneeze. If someone argues that the car backfire caused my sneeze merely because it happened right before my sneeze, that person is committing the fallacy of false cause.
Just because two things are correlated in time (for instance, one thing happens right after the other) doesn’t mean the one thing causes the other. So if we are going to prove that A causes B, we need more evidence than mere correlation in time to determine the causal relationship.
How to Determine Causation
Luckily, folks like philosophers have long studied causality and have developed methods to help us think more carefully about causality and to determine when A causes B. I will briefly discuss two such methods:
One: The Method of Agreement
With the Method of Agreement, we look at a group of instances in which a certain effect occurs, and then we examine what factor all or most of the instances have in common. That common factor is likely the cause. For example, if we want to know what causes a bunch of people at a restaurant to get food poisoning, we might make a detailed list of what all the folks with food poisoning ate.
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If we find a food in common that all of them ate, that is likely the cause of the food poisoning.
Here is a chart to illustrate this fictional event. (This chart suggests milk and ice cream are likely the cause of food poisoning):
Bob Sally Paul Sarah
Salad X X X
French Fries X X X
Milk X X X X
Chicken X X X
Mashed potatoes X X
Pasta X X
Beef ravioli X
Ice cream X X X X
Two: The Method of Difference
The Method of Difference is another method we can use to determine causality is to look at a group of instances in which an effect under investigation is present and instances when the effect is not present. We can then determine what factor is present in one case but not in the other. That factor is likely the cause.
For example, if education researchers wish to determine the cause of strong reading skills in students, they might examine a group of students with strong reading skills (SR in the chart below) and a group of students with weak reading skills (WR in the chart below) and determine which factor is present in the first group that is absent in the second group.
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For example, the chart below (which is based on a fictional study), suggests that the presence of many books in a child’s home is likely the cause of strong reading skills.
SR #1 SR#2 WR #1 WR#2
Many books in the house X X
Parents read to them reg. X X X
Little television X X
Lots of book in classroom X X X X
Reading tutoring X
Dinner every night with family X X
The Trick of Causality
The Method of Agreement and the Method of Difference are just two such methods people use to determine causality. They are methods developed by John Stuart Mill*, and you can read more about these methods and his other methods here.
John Stuart Mill
The methods of agreement and difference are a thinking tool (the fancy word for this is heuristic) that help us gather evidence for patterns of causality. Having a tool like this is important when determining causality because in the absence of such a heuristic, we are more likely to assume something is a causal factor because of our own prejudice, bias, and inadequate personal experience.
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We will eventually apply these methods to the issue of gun violence, but first let’s briefly examine three different kinds of causes: necessary, sufficient, and contributing causes.
Understanding these different kinds of causes is helpful because some of them are stronger than others, and understanding the relative strength of a cause is importance when we are trying to address a particular problem.
A sufficient cause is a cause that will bring about the effect under investigation but is not the only thing that will bring about the effect. For example, if you want to make a lot of noise, screaming is a sufficient way to do this, but it is not the only possible cause of loud noise. You could also bang posts and pans.
As another example, if you want to cause your friends to feel happy, making them their favorite dinner is sufficient to do this. But other things can also cause your friends to be happy, too, like giving them a present or a hug (if they like hugs) or running an errand for them.
In addition to sufficient causes, there are also necessary causes. A necessary cause is a cause that must be present to bring about a desired effect but will not necessarily bring about the effect by itself. For instance, oxygen is necessary to have fire and acting kindly is necessary to have good, long-lasting friendships. Neither of these causes alone, however, is sufficient to bring about the desire effect.
For example, you must have other things besides oxygen (like kindling and a heat source) to have a fire. You must also do other things besides be kind (like spend time with your friend) in order to build long-lasting friendships.
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It is important to note that a cause could be both necessary and sufficient. For instance, a winning lottery ticket is both necessary and sufficient for winning the lottery, and being an unmarried man is both necessary and sufficient for being a bachelor.
Lastly, contributing causes are causes that help to bring about the desired effect in some way, but the cause is neither necessary nor sufficient to bring about the effect. A contributing cause can be strong or weak. A strong contributing cause greatly contributes to bringing about an effect, and a weak contributing cause does not contribute very much to bringing about an effect.
As you may have noticed, understanding the different kids of causes is helpful both for determining and discussing causality. Generally speaking, when we are working on addressing a social problem, we are mostly concerned with determining sufficient, necessary, and strong contributing causes because these are the causes that most directly affect the issues at hand.
Congrats To You!
If you have read this far in the post, I want to thank you and congratulate you. You’re a trooper. We need to have more productive gun conversations in this country, and if we are to do that, we must have a clear understanding of causality.
You’ve learned a lot of the key ideas and terms for analyzing causality, and so now we want to apply these ideas to the problem of gun violence to see if we can think more clearly about it causes.
I will be posting the next part of this post in the next couple of days.
In the meantime,you might like to read this post about good and bad gun control arguments, which certainly touches on causal arguments but is about more than just causal arguments:
You might also like these posts about thinking in general:
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media.
*Mill wrote about his methods in A System of Logic. You can find this book here.
If you would like to learn more about how to think clearly and well, you might enjoy reading Everyday Debate, a book I wrote with Classical Academic Press to help people think, discuss, and debate (in normal everyday settings) effectively. While I wrote the book for middle and high school students, it is also a good introduction to critical thinking for college students and adults who wish to learn more about this topic. You can find the book at Classical Academic Press here or at Amazon here.