Actual Causation

Dr. Enno Fischer (doctoral project, completed in 2020)

This project is concerned with the notion of actual causation in the recent debate on causal models. The term ’actual’ suggests that this notion refers to a particular kind of cause—a kind of cause that is naturally contrasted with potential causes. A potential cause is something that can bring about a certain effect. An actual cause is something that does bring about a certain effect in a particular context.

The project has two overarching themes. The first theme is a pluralist theory about actual causation. I argue that we need to distinguish a range of concepts of actual causation in order to render the notion most fruitful from a functional perspective. This functional perspective is motivated by the idea that concepts of actual causation play a crucial role in contexts where agents try to achieve certain goals by means of intervention and in contexts where agents ascribe responsibility to other agents for some outcome. The second overarching theme is the context-sensitive norm-dependence of actual causation. I argue that there are two kinds of context-sensitivity, one kind that concerns selecting the cause from equally necessary background conditions and a different kind of context-sensitivity that concerns our willingness to consider certain non-actual scenarios that involve combinations of interventions. I examine how these kinds of context-sensitivity affect reasoning about actual causation in the law and how context-sensitivity is best represented in the framework of causal models.