Causation: Linguistic, Philosophical, Legal and Economic

42 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2016

See all articles by Richard W. Wright

Richard W. Wright

Illinois Inst. Tech., Chicago-Kent College of Law

Ingeborg Puppe

University of Bonn - Department of Law

Date Written: April 15, 2016


Causation plays an essential role in attributions of legal responsibility. However, considerable confusion has been generated in philosophy, law and economics by the use of causal language to refer not merely to causation in its basic (actual/factual/natural) sense, which refers to the operation of the laws of nature, but also to the quite different normative issue of appropriate legal responsibility. To reduce such confusion, we argue that causal language in these disciplines should be used to refer solely to causation in its basic sense. While it is often said that the law need not and should not concern itself with philosophical analyses of causation, we demonstrate that this is incorrect with respect to causation in its basic sense. After surveying the philosophical foundations of the modern analyses of causation, we discuss the inadequacy of the counterfactual strong necessity (sine qua non, but-for) criterion for a condition to be a cause in a specific instance, which is dominant in modern philosophy, law and economics. We argue instead for the need to employ the more comprehensive, factual, weak-necessity/strong-sufficiency criterion, which is based on the “covering law” account elaborated by John Stuart Mill and has been developed in the modern legal literature as the “NESS” (necessary element of a sufficient set) criterion. We discuss the importance of understanding the required standards of persuasion for proving causation (or any other required fact) as generally requiring a warranted belief rather than a mere statistical probability. We note the confusion and paradoxes that result from some courts’ employing the statistical probability interpretation of the standards of persuasion in certain situations involving inherent uncertainty regarding causation, rather than acknowledging the inherent uncertainty and explicitly addressing the normative responsibility issue. Finally, we criticize the efficiency theorists’ attempt to explain the causation requirement for legal responsibility, despite causation’s being irrelevant under their theories.

Keywords: causation, liability, efficiency theories of causation, philosophy of causation

Suggested Citation

Wright, Richard W. and Puppe, Ingeborg, Causation: Linguistic, Philosophical, Legal and Economic (April 15, 2016). Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 91, No. 2, 2016, Available at SSRN:

Richard W. Wright (Contact Author)

Illinois Inst. Tech., Chicago-Kent College of Law ( email )

2603 Hartzell Street
Evanston, IL IL 60201
United States
847-475-5479 (Phone)

Ingeborg Puppe

University of Bonn - Department of Law ( email )

Regina-Pacis-Weg 3
Postfach 2220
Bonn, D-53012

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