Causality in altruism

You might hear stories of someone who influenced someone else to be vegan or to donate 100 dollars and then claimed to have caused X animal lives to be saved or $100 to be donated, which are very good things indeed. But the person who donated that $100 can also claim responsibility for donating that money, because they were an integral step in the outcome, without which the money wouldn’t have been donated.

But if both parties are claiming full responsibility for causing $100 to be donated, shouldn’t that imply that $200 was donated? So who can claim responsibility here? Are they both equally responsible? Is it reasonable to say that they were both fully responsible after all? Or is it, as many things are in the real world, much more complicated than that? This is important if we, as individuals and organisations interested in maximising impact, are going to be rigorous about measuring the impact of individuals.

A friend once told me a story that poses an ethical riddle. It goes like this:

A married woman had been growing bored. Her husband wasn’t paying her attention anymore, and had stopped treating her well. She started sneaking away at night to go and sleep with other men across the river from her house. There was a bridge but she took the ferry to reduce the risk of being seen. One night, she went across the river but the man whom she had arranged to sleep with didn’t show. She went back to the ferry, but the boat master had heard of what the woman was doing from a friend and didn’t want to ferry her anymore. The woman, desperate, went across the bridge, where a drunken man killed her in a fit of rage. Whose fault was it that the woman died?

Another, more complicated riddle is presented:

There were four men in a military camp in the middle of the desert. Three of them hated the fourth, John, and wanted to kill him, but they wanted it to look like an accident. One day, when it was John’s turn to go on patrol, one of the others took his chance and put poison in John’s water flask. A second soldier, not knowing what the first had done, poured out John’s water and replaced it with sand. The third then came and poked small holes in the bottle so its contents would slowly leak out. When John was halfway through his patrol and looked for a drink, he realised his flask was empty, and he died of thirst. Who killed John?

In safety, there is a concept known as the ‘root cause’. For example, take the Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 which involved a Concorde plane outside Charles de Gaulle International Airport in France. The plane crashed, killing all crew and passengers, and some bystanders on the ground. Was it the crew’s fault? No, because the plane’s engine had caught fire shortly before take-off. So was it the fault of the engine manufacturers?

No, as it was revealed that a tyre had ruptured during take-off which hit the fuel tank, which resulted in the flame. This in turn was caused by a piece of metal found on the runway, which had fallen off of another airplane that day. This led back to the operator who had replaced that particular piece of metal, who had incorrectly installed the piece. This was interpreted as the root and primary cause of the accident.

But even so we can go back further. Someone must have trained this operator – did they do a bad job? Is it the fault of the management of that company for not putting the correct practices in place to eliminate the occurrence of such events? Maybe someone had just upset the operator and he wasn’t thinking straight.

If we go back to our first example and apply the root cause logic, that suggests that the woman died because of her husband. But this is an uncomfortable result, as the one who is most at fault is surely the man who actually killed her. Some might argue that the root cause is really just the drunken man, but it has to be said that all individuals in that story played an integral part in the woman’s death.

It might even be argued that the man was not thinking straight. What if he was drugged through no fault of his own? To be clear here, I don’t mean to imply that each player in this chain of events should be held responsible, or indeed be ‘guilty’, but they did play an unknowing role.

Bringing this all back to the original question, I confess I don’t have an answer. But I’m convinced that the answer isn’t as simple as we think, and if we want to be rigorous about measuring the impact that individuals have through an action or over their life, we should consider this further. At the very least, we should define very clearly what we mean when we say “I/we caused $100 to be donated.”

2 thoughts on “Causality in altruism”

  1. Interesting ethical conundrum. It is often very difficult to separate causal factors and root cause in any ‘incident’ or ‘event’.

    In occupational health and safety, it’s important to do both. There are often many causal factors leading to an incident such as the Air France Concorde disaster you mentioned. However, eliminating anyone of these ‘causal factors’ may not have stopped the incident from happenning. But one of these will be the ‘Root Cause’. ‘Root Causes’ are distinct in that, if this one cause is eliminated, then the incident could of or will have been averted.

    I feel your donation example is likely more complicated and would require more information on why, why, why, why, why (the 5-whys of root cause analysis) actions were taken by the individuals to understand who should get the credit for the donation. Is it conceivable that both receive credit?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *