The one true cause of X

In my last post, I made a joke about, “Guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people. Or is it the other way around?” The point is that one event can have many causes. The original slogan–”Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–presumably wasn’t meant to be taken literally. But imagine if it was?

“The idea that guns are lethal weapons is sheer propaganda on the part of anti-gun fanatics. Sure, bullets passing through a person’s body may be correlated with death. But as well all know, correlation does not equal causation. It’s astonishing that the anti-gun lobby has been unable to grasp this simple point, in their campaign to smear honest, law-abiding gun owners.”

I don’t think the above paragraph is that far off from some of Gary Taubes’ rhetoric on diet, but I won’t get into that because I assume everyone is sick of hearing about Taubes by now. And if there’s one I can say in defense of Taubes, it’s that taking statements of the form, “A doesn’t cause B, C causes B” too literally can sometimes be very tempting.

Consider the question, “what is the cause of third-world poverty?” An economist might say, “People in developing countries are poor because they aren’t very productive. If that wasn’t true, it would be easy for anyone to open up a factory in a country where wages are low and make a killing.” And I can accept that there’s something to that explanation.

Here’s another explanation: what we today consider “extreme poverty” is how almost everyone lived in the middle ages. We shouldn’t look for something that happened to developing countries in the 20th century to make them poor. Rather, we should accept poverty as the historical norm, and focus on what happened to rich countries to make them rich. And I think there’s something to that explanation as well.

However, neither of these two explanations rule out the possibility of other explanations. In particular, they don’t entail that the economic development (and corresponding productivity growth) of developing countries wasn’t hampered by colonialism and, later, being used as pawns in the Cold War (and, some would argue, ill-advised economic policies pushed on poor countries by rich ones.)

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3 thoughts on “The one true cause of X

  1. I think people are operating on the moral intuition that if Y is the cause of X, then Y is morally responsible for X. But moral responsibility is a lot more complicated than that. Y is morally responsible for X if out of all the causes of X, Y is the “best” one to change.

    “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is basically a claim that it’s better to change bad actors than to restrict access to guns.

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