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Dissertation Abstract

Production, not Dependence: The Metaphysics of Causation and its Role in Explanation, Responsibility, and the Law

Causation is production, not dependence. It is not merely a matter of how two facts or events covary, but about what underlies that covariation. Furthermore, causation is unified (not fragmented or plural) and is a natural relation (in the world). To cause is to make something happen, to generate. The causal nexus (the web of causal influence) consists entirely of productive positive causes. With these fixed, the (causal) dependence relations are determined.

Dependence belongs to the theory of explanation. Causal dependence is an explanatory notion: A causally explains B, in virtue of a causal relation between cause C and effect E. Confusing causation and explanation in this way underlies two related errors: the identification of omissions as causes and the embrace of causal pluralism.

A proper understanding of causation as production can better make sense, both of the metaphysics of causation itself, and of the special role that causation plays in explanation, responsibility, and rational planning. Each of these has a special causal species (causal explanation, causal responsibility, etc.), in which dependences play an important role, but one that is distinct from the role played by causation itself.

Morality and the law also attribute significance to causation, especially in terms of responsibility and liability. We are responsible for that which we cause. The law and common-sense morality both see an important distinction between active and omissive harming. Liability traditionally attaches more easily for active causing of harm than it does for omissions and failures to prevent harm (where the law requires a special duty).

A production theory of causation and an understanding of how omissions are not properly causal makes better sense of the role of causation in liability. This requires refinement, since, the law does, selectively, apply liability to omissions and preventions. Crucially, however, and on a view that identifies omissions as causes, puzzlingly, liability for omissions requires a preexisting duty to perform. My account explains the law’s differential treatment of proper causal liability and this latter omissive liability, and, in the process, offers a novel theory of non-causal liability in terms of corrective justice, that is dependence-driven, for cases involving omissions. I argue that cases of liability for omissions are cases in which the liability is not properly causal; rather, when a duty is owed by a defendant to a plaintiff, the defendant has a second-order duty in corrective justice to place the plaintiff in the position she would have been had defendant comported with his duty. As such, what the defendant owes is not the damage “caused” by the omission, but to make good on the obligation that the defendant owes to place the plaintiff in the position in which she has a right to be.