Surface syllogisms and the sin-based model of causation

byPhilGoetz9y19th Jun 201050 comments

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The White House says there will be a temporary ban on new deep-water drilling, and BP will have to pay the salaries of oilmen who have no work during that ban.  I scratched my head trying to figure out the logic behind this.  This was my first attempt:

  1. BP caused an oil spill.
  2. The oil spill caused a ban on drilling.
  3. The ban on drilling caused oilmen to be out of work.
  4. Therefore, BP caused oilmen to be out of work.
  5. Therefore, BP should pay these oilmen.

This logic works equally well in this case:

  1. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.
  2. Silent Spring caused a ban on DDT use.
  3. The ban on DDT use caused factory workers to be out of work.
  4. Therefore, Rachel Carson caused factory workers to be out of work.
  5. Therefore, Rachel Carson should pay these workers.

But "everyone" would agree that the second example is fallacious.  Are people so angry at BP that they can't think at all?

Then I came up with this second argument.  ("At fault" is legalese for "caused by an immoral or illegal action.")

  1. An oil spill caused a ban on drilling.
  2. The ban on drilling caused oilmen to be out of work.
  3. Therefore, the oil spill caused oilmen to be out of work.
  4. The party at fault should pay the injured party.
  5. BP is at fault for the oil spill.
  6. Therefore, BP should pay these oilmen.

Applied to Rachel Carson:

  1. Silent Spring caused a ban on DDT.
  2. The ban on DDT use caused factory workers to be out of work.
  3. The party at fault should pay the injured party.
  4. The producers of DDT are at fault for environmental damage.
  5. Therefore, those producers should pay these factory workers.

Both these chains of reasoning are still faulty, but they're more similar to the reactions of most people.  They are faulty because they're not specific about the connection between the fault and the injured party, or about what an "injury" is.  In the second case, there is no injury to the workers; the company simply stopped employing them, and could only be held morally responsible for this under something like feudalism.  In the BP case, you could argue that non-BP oilmen were injured, because they want to work and their (non-BP) employers want to hire them, but outside forces prevented them.

However, being at fault for the oil spill is not the same as being at fault for (causing by immoral action) the ban on drilling.  The word "cause" is too vague for moral responsibility to be transitive over it; and "X caused Z" does not preclude "Y caused Z".  The ban on drilling is not a ban only on drilling by BP; this means that the powers that be decided the ban on drilling is good for the country, not a punishment of BP.  It is a decision that the expected cost of further drilling outweighs the expected benefits.  There is no moral failing and no one at fault, and either the government should pay them, or the oilmen should bite it the way any workers do when their industry has a downturn and rely on existing safety nets such as unemployment insurance.  (This is completely different from the case of fishermen put out of work directly by the oil spill; I believe it makes sense for BP to pay them.)

Figuring out how moral responsibility propagates through a chain of events is complicated.  I propose that people are using the "sin-based" model of cause and effect.  This model says that all bad outcomes are caused by moral failings.  (On the radio yesterday, I heard a woman being interviewed whose house had been destroyed by a landslide.  The first question the interviewer asked was, "Whose fault was this?")

In the sin-based model, when you enumerate a chain of events that is causally linked, and some events are bad outcomes, all you need to do is transfer blame for the bad outcomes to the moral failings preceding them in the chain.  Oilmen are out of work; you construct a chain of events leading to them being out of work, identify the closest preceding moral failure in the chain, and pin the blame on that moral failing.  No need for painful thinking!

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