Responsibility and causation

Notes for April 17

Main points

When something goes wrong, the law often assigns responsibility to the person who caused the harm. Hart and Honoré try to defend this practice. They try to show that there is a sensible understanding of causation that is useful in the law.

Their opponents hold that there are too many things that could be the cause of any given event to be useful in the law. The legal understanding of cause, according to the opponents, reflects decisions based on policy considerations rather than anything about the nature of events.

Our discussion

Most of our discussion surrounded the difference between the two versions of the forest fire story.

  1. A throws a lighted cigarette into the brush. As it is dying out, a gust of wind fans the flames lead to a forest fire.

  2. A throws a lighted cigarette into the brush. As it is dying out, B douses the brush with gasoline leading to a forest fire.

Hart and Honoré maintain that A caused the forest fire in the first case, provided the wind is a normal feature of the environment. In the second case, however, they think the ‘intervening agent,’ B is the cause of the fire.

Emma asked why they didn’t use the same analysis in both cases, such that the normality or abnormality of people who dump gas in the brush is the crucial factor in determining whether A is the cause. Hart and Honoré think there is something different about intentional actions in the causal chain of events. I think they’re right to say that this is the way we commonly think of it. But it’s not obvious to me that we’re correct to do so.

Sydney and Emma noted that when there are two people involved it matters a lot who comes second. There appear to be different standards of intention and knowledge.

A few more cases to think about

A stabs B who refuses medical treatment and bleeds to death. A is responsible for wounding B. But who is responsible for B’s death? (Callum).

A is going for a long hike in the desert. B poisons A’s canteen. C dumps the contents of A’s canteen out, replacing them with sand. A goes for the hike and dies. Did anyone kill A? If so, who?

Key concepts

The difference between the two forest fire cases.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2013. It was posted April 24, 2013.
Philosophy of Law