Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Against Making a Difference

[6] Sartorio 2004: 331
Kaiserman, A., forthcoming—a, “Against Accomplice Liability”, forthcoming in Gardner, J., Green, L., and Leiter, B. (eds.), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law: Volume 4, Oxford OUP
Causal Dependence (Counterfactual Dependence): e depends causally on c iff (i) if c hadn’t occurred, e wouldn’t have occurred, and (ii) if c had occurred, e would have occurred.
[11] Kaiserman forthcoming—a; Beebee and Kaiserman 2019: 366-367; cf. Wright 2013; Strevens 2007.
Caney, S., 2010, “Climate Change and the Duties of the Advantaged” in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13(1): 203-228
However there’s a prevalent defence: it makes no (significant) difference if I do it. For example, “global warming will still occur even if I do not drive [my “gas-guzzler”] just for fun”;[4] “my polluting doesn’t actually harm anyone, since it doesn’t make a difference to anyone’s health”;[5] “why [should citizens] vote even if… each particular vote does not make a difference to the outcome”?;[6] “British officials… dismiss suggestions that our role on the ground in Saudi Arabia makes any difference [to targeting Yemeni civilians]”.[7] 
Causation (Chain of Counterfactual Dependence): Let c, d1, d2, …, e be a causal chain, viz., a finite sequence of actual distinct events in stepwise causal dependence. c is a cause of e iff there’s a causal chain leading from c to e.[9]
Causation (Counterfactual Dependence): c is a cause of e iff (i) if c hadn’t occurred, then e wouldn’t have occurred, and (ii) if c had occurred, then e would have occurred.
P3. In situation S, P’s φ-ing did not make a difference to O’s occurrence.
Sartorio, C., 2004, “How to be responsible for something without causing it” in Philosophical Perspectives 18(1) Ethics: 315-337
[16] See Kaiserman forthcoming—a, b for discussion of this analysis of moral responsibility.
[15] Restatement (Second) of Torts 1965: §432(2)
[14] Given “multiple wrongdoers, the court may treat wrongful conduct as having… causal connection with the loss… though the… ‘but for’ test is not satisfied.” (Lord Nicholls in Kuwait Airways Corp v Iraqi Airways Co (No.6), 2002, 2 A.C. 883 at [74]);
Stapleton, J., 2013, “Unnecessary Causes” in Law Quarterly Review 129 January 2013: 39-65
Suppose I joyride my “gas-guzzler”. I drive freely—uncoerced—and reasonably foresee that my emissions contribute to global warming. Moreover my driving is a cause of global warming: it’s in a plurality of events (including industrial contributions) minimally sufficient for global temperature-increase. Consider, therefore, “The Motivation Argument”:
Lewis, D., 1987, “Causation” in Philosophical Papers Volume II: 159-213
P2’. P’s φ-ing was a cause of O iff P’s φ-ing was in a plurality of events minimally sufficient for O.
All of these events are instantiated since the shocks arrive simultaneously. So Athena’s and Balthazar’s button-pressings are each a cause of Caspar’s death, which is intuitively right.
Some of the most serious wrongs are produced collectively. Can individuals bear moral responsibility for such outcomes? Suggestively, it’s been argued that “all who participate by their actions in processes that produce injustice [e.g. “sweatshop” labour] share responsibility for its remedy”;[1] “citizens… bear partial responsibility for the election outcome. Even if an individual’s vote is not decisive for a given candidate’s victory”;[2] “those who contribute to climate change… (by using… excessive… fossil fuels or by deforestation) should make amends”.[3]
Worse, fragility can’t save difference-making. Consider:
Kagan, S., 2011, “Do I Make a Difference?” in Philosophy & Public Affairs 39(2):105-141
[13] Cf. Kment 2010: 91-96
IV: The counterfactual test in law
Strevens, M., 2007, “Mackie Remixed”, in Campbell, J. K., O’Rourke, M., and Silverstein, H. S. (eds.) Causation and Explanation. MIT Press: 4-93
[3] Caney 2010: 205
Intuitively, (only) Athena’s button-pressing is a cause of Caspar’s death. But the process running from the pre-empted cause is only cut short by the main process running to completion. So there’s no causal chain from Athena’s button-pressing to Caspar’s death: had any of the events constituting the journey of Athena’s signal to Caspar’s brain not occurred, Caspar’s death would have occurred anyway thanks to Balthazar’s signal. The analysis under-extends: there’s causation without a causal chain.
Why isn’t Balthazar’s button-pressing a cause of Caspar’s death in faulty button? The difference-making intuition: Balthazar’s button-pressing didn’t make a difference to Caspar’s death, and difference-making is necessary for causation. Here’s one way to analyse this intuition:
Whilst Athena’s button-pressing (c) is intuitively a cause of Caspar’s death (e), e does not counterfactually depend upon c. A straightforward remedy: extend counterfactual dependence to a transitive relation by taking the ancestral.
(Faulty button) Athena and Balthazar press their respective buttons, reasonably believing that each button-pressing will deliver Caspar a lethal electric shock. Balthazar’s button is broken but Athena’s button works; Caspar dies immediately.
P3’. My free, culpable joyriding was in a plurality of events minimally sufficient for global warming.
So neither Athena’s nor Balthazar’s button-pressing made any difference to Caspar’s death or to its time/manner/place. But both are intuitively causes. So difference-making is not necessary for causation—P2 is false. What, then, is the correct analysis of causation? [12]This effect-producing intuition underpins Lewis’ quasi-dependences (1987: 206): Balthazar’s button-pressing doesn’t affect the “intrinsic character” of the instantiated causal process which leads to Caspar’s death.
Here’s a pertinent objection: if causation isn’t difference-making, why is the counterfactual test successful in law? My reply is twofold. First, the effect-producing analysis supplies an error-theory for the counterfactual test.[13] Consider: if N is necessary for A, and something is A, then it’s a sufficient condition for x to be A that nothing other than x be N. Now, being in a minimally sufficient plurality is necessary for being a cause. Assume charitably that passing the counterfactual test is sufficient for causation. In faulty button, Athena’s button-pressing is a cause of Caspar’s death. Therefore, if we remove Athena’s button-pressing from the instantiated plurality minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death then that plurality is no longer sufficient for the death. Since there’s only one such minimally sufficient plurality (no pre-emption/overdetermination), the death can’t occur but-for Athena’s button-pressing. So the counterfactual test returns the correct result in simple causal structures and the MS analysis explains why.

  • Weaken sufficiency: c needn’t be sufficient for e, but merely one of a plurality of actual events collectively sufficient for e;
  • Weaken necessity: c needn’t be necessary for e, but merely necessary for the sufficiency of a plurality of events collectively sufficient for e.


  • A plurality of events c1, …, cn collectively caused (was minimally sufficient for) e iff:
    1. The instantiation of the plurality (i.e. the occurrence of c1, …, cn) was sufficient for e’s occurrence, and
    2. The instantiation of no proper sub-plurality was sufficient for e’s occurrence.
  • c is a cause of e iff c is one of a plurality minimally sufficient for e.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations” in Gardiner, S. et al. (eds.) Climate Ethics: Essential Readings: 332-346
Now c does count as a cause of e: an intermediate event d (e.g. an electric signal running from Athena’s button to Caspar’s brain) depends causally on c, and e depends causally on d.
Moore, M., 2007, “Causing, Aiding, and the Superfluity of Accomplice Liability” in University of Pennsylvania Law Review 156: 395-452

  • Athena’s button-pressing at time t.
  • Athena’s electric signal being at position P at t0+1.
  • Caspar’s living brain being at P at t0+1.

This effect-producing account succeeds where difference-making fails. Consider early pre-emption. There’s an instantiated plurality of events including Athena’s button-pressing which is minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death. But there’s no instantiated plurality including Balthazar’s button-pressing because Balthazar doesn’t press. So Athena’s button-pressing—not Balthazar’s—is a cause of Caspar’s death.

  • Balthazar’s button-pressing at time t.
  • Balthazar’s electric signal being at position P at t0+1.1.
  • Caspar’s living brain being at P at t0+1.1.

This common defence seems to go like this:
(Overdetermination) Athena and Balthazar press their buttons simultaneously. The lethal shock switches on, identical to the shock from Athena or Balthazar individually. Caspar dies in exactly the same time/manner/place as if Athena or Balthazar individually had pressed.

  • Athena’s button-pressing at time t.
  • Athena’s electric signal being at position P at t0+1.
  • Caspar’s living brain being at P at t0+1.

[1] Young 2006: 125

  • Balthazar’s button-pressing at time t.
  • Balthazar’s electric signal being at position P at t0+1.
  • Caspar’s living brain being at P at t0+1.

This essay was the winning entry in the undergraduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Presumably, degrees of responsibility scale with causal contribution. So individual responsibility may be small or better discharged through institutional change than through abjuring contribution. Nevertheless, contra the Complacency Argument and per the Motivation Argument, we bear responsibility for harms to which we contribute, regardless of whether we made a difference. In sum, I hope to generate practical reasoning: we should remedy, combat and protest harms which we participate in producing, from “fast fashion” to the arms trade, voting to climate change.
Wright, R., 2013, “The NESS Account of Natural Causation: A Response to Criticisms” in Stepanians, M. and Kahmen., B. (eds.) Critical Essays on “Causation and Responsibility”. De Gruyter: 13-66
C. Therefore I bear moral responsibility for global warming.
What about when there’s no intermediate event?
Written by University of Oxford student Imogen Rivers 
[4] Sinnott-Armstrong 2010: 334

  1. P φ’s freely (e.g. uncoerced);
  2. P’s φ-ing was culpable with respect to O (e.g. P could reasonably foresee O);
  3. P’s φ-ing was a cause of O.[16]

But counterfactual dependence, unlike causation, isn’t transitive. For example:
[7] Merat 2019
Notice: if Athena’s button-pressing hadn’t occurred, Caspar’s death would have been slightly later. So perhaps we should construe events as fragile, where an event is fragile if, or to the extent that, it couldn’t have occurred differently in time/manner/place. But the analysis now over-extends. Suppose that my sending you a poisoned cake was a cause of your death. Intuitively, if you die slightly later—because, say, the postman paused to tie his shoelaces before delivering it—then the postman’s shoelace-tying is a cause of your death occurring at the particular time that it did. Not so if we construe events as fragile: the postman’s shoelace-tying becomes a cause of your death. A loophole: events are fragile in some cases. Which cases though? Without independent motivation, this looks ad hoc and unprincipled.
Intuitively, only Athena is morally responsible for Caspar’s death (although we condemn Balthazar’s attempt) since Balthazar’s button-pressing failed to be a cause of Caspar’s death.[8] Moreover, P3 is a reasonable empirical observation in situations including “fast fashion”, global warming, voting and competitive-market arms-trading. But does not making a difference really make a difference to individual responsibility?
Kment, B., 2010, “Causation: Determination and Difference-Making” in Noûs 44: 80-111 [5] Kagan 2011: 109
P1 seems plausible. To illustrate:
P2. P’s φ-ing was a cause of O only if P’s φ-ing made a difference to O’s occurrence.
Causes don’t always make a difference to their effects; perhaps they always produce their effects. The difference-making analysis of “c is a cause of e” captures the intuition that c’s occurrence was necessary and sufficient[10] for e’s occurrence: e couldn’t have occurred without c, and e couldn’t but have occurred with c. This intuition is too strong; the effect-producing account refines it:
The other plurality contains:
Kaiserman, A., forthcoming—b, “Responsibility and the ‘Pie Fallacy’” in Philosophical Studies
Young, I., 2006, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model” in Social Philosophy and Policy 23(1): 102-130
II: Against making a difference
The Minimal Sufficiency (MS) analysis congenially captures this effect-producing intuition:[11]
[2] Goldman 1999: 217
P1. P is morally responsible for outcome O only if, for some action φ, P’s φ-ing was a cause of
Analogously, suppose that I freely purchase “sweatshop”-produced clothing. I could reasonably foresee that I’m financing continued exploitation. Moreover, my purchase is in a plurality—e.g. comprising the finite number of purchases required for “sweatshop”-solvency—minimally sufficient for continued exploitation. So—without making a difference to (overdetermined) exploitation—I bear responsibility for its continuation. Likewise, my vote contributes to causing—albeit overdetermined—election outcomes. Finally, officials who sell arms to civilian-targeting states—though pre-empting alternative sellers in a competitive market—freely, culpably and causally contribute to war crimes.
Call this “The Complacency Argument”.
One such minimally sufficient plurality contains the following events:

  1. Restatements of Torts 1934, 1965: §431; Moore 2007: 407; Stapleton 2013: 60

[9] Lewis 1987: 167
Consider late pre-emption. There’s a plurality of events (e.g. the instantiation of all events on the signal’s path from Athena’s button to Caspar’s brain) which is minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death—there must be at least one, because the death happens. In this essay I defend an account of causation according to which difference-making is not necessary for causation. So P2 is false and the Complacency Argument unsound. I argue that we do in fact have moral responsibility for outcomes to which we don’t make any difference.
These events are all instantiated, so Athena’s button-pressing is a cause of Caspar’s death. What about Balthazar’s button-pressing? Balthazar’s signal reaches P a split-second after Athena’s (say, at t0+1.1). So any plurality of events minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death which contains Balthazar’s button-pressing includes:
V: The Motivation Argument
Kaiserman, A., and Beebee, H., 2019, “Causal Contribution in War” in Journal of Applied Philosophy 37(3): 364-377
P1’. P bears moral responsibility for outcome O iff, for action φ:
Merat, A., 2019, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/18/the-saudis-couldnt-do-it-without-us-the-uks-true-role-in-yemens-deadly-war
What about complex causal structures? In pre-emption/overdetermination cases, courts explicitly eschew the counterfactual test.[14] Moreover, the Restatement (Second) embraces the “substantial factor” causation-test: something is a substantial factor “if two forces are actively operating… and each of itself is sufficient to bring about harm”.[15] Therefore, tort-feasors who are individually unnecessary for the result—viz., make no difference to it—may be causes in virtue of being individually minimally sufficient for harm.
III. From difference-making to effect-producing
(Late Pre-emption) Athena and Balthazar both press their buttons; Athena’s signal arrives first, killing Caspar an instant before Balthazar’s can.
Here’s a last illustration, namely overdetermination. Now there are two pluralities of events minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death, containing Athena’s and Balthazar’s button-pressings respectively. One plurality contains:
Goldman, A., 1999, “Why Citizens should Vote: A Causal Responsibility Approach” in Social Philosophy and Policy 16(2): 201-217
(Early Pre-emption) Athena and Balthazar plan to kill Caspar. Both lethal buttons function. Athena presses first, killing Caspar. Seeing this, Balthazar doesn’t press his. But had Athena’s button-pressing not occurred, Balthazar’s button-pressing would have killed Caspar instead.
But this last event is not instantiated: Caspar is already dead at t0+1.1. So Balthazar’s button-pressing isn’t part of any instantiated plurality minimally sufficient for Caspar’s death.[12]
C. Therefore, in S, for action φ, P is not morally responsible for O.
[8] Of course, that P’s φ-ing should be a cause of O is not sufficient for P to be morally responsible with respect to O. I’ll come back to this. Note that Sartorio (2004) contests P1, arguing that P can be morally responsible for O without being a cause of it. However her case depends on a controversial account of the causal structure of overdetermined omissions. In charity to the Complacency Argument, I assume P1.
I. The Complacency Argument
[10] From now, the “necessity”/“sufficiency” of events means “necessity/sufficiency, given the laws and circumstances”.