Proximate Cause & Theories of Agency

I have deliberately avoided using this blog to engage in overt political discourse, but I’ve never barred myself from political metadiscourse. Political discourse is about our beliefs on governance; political metadiscourse is more about understanding how people arrive at those beliefs and how those beliefs are expressed.

I’ve been posting on the internet for over two decades and I’ve lost some interest in engaging in discourses because it has become repetitive to a degree. So analyzing these repetitions and patterns across discourses is more interesting and fresh to me than the actual individual discourses.

One pattern of discourse that I’ve noticed goes something like this:

  1. Someone makes a proximate cause claim: “X happened because of Y,” or in its alternate form, “X would not have happened but for Y”.
  2. There are multiple potential Ys that can explain X.
  3. People debate about what is the most correctest of sine qua non among all the possible choices.

Here is a good example of such a “proximate cause” discourse (check the replies and feast on as much discourse as you can stomach):

These discourses tend to be uninteresting and uninformative because they involve everyone talking past each other. The pattern of retort to someone else’s theory of proximate cause is not to say that theirs is an invalid proximate cause, but that it is not the One True Proximate Cause. In other words, the retort to “A is the cause” is not “A did not cause it,” but rather “it was actually B.”

So everyone ends up making perfectly reasonable claims. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure. Discourses where everyone is allowed to be correct are not interesting to me; it is the discourse equivalent of a high school soccer scrimmage match. In my opinion, you will be happier and better off if you learn how to detect these sorts of discourses and refuse to engage in them.

Although these sorts of discourses are boring to engage with directly, they are fascinating from a metadiscourse perspective. Why would someone hone in on some proximate cause over another proximate cause? Obviously, people will pick whatever most suits their worldview, but isn’t that just begging the question?

As far as I can tell, the reasoning behind any given One True Proximate Cause comes down to theories of agency: i.e. people’s beliefs concerning which parties involved had the ability to correct course or to foresee how their actions would cause something undesirable, and which parties were bound by circumstance or reasonableness to act in a certain way.

The people with whom we align ourselves end up being a part of the latter group– constrained by circumstance, acting reasonably– whereas the out-group ends up being the group that had agency all along, but who failed to act correctly so as to not proximately cause the bad event.

Once you see how many political discourses on the internet are defined solely by theories of which groups do and don’t have agency, it’s hard to unsee it. This is not to say that all theories of agency are created equally– some theories of agency are much easier to sympathize with than others. My point is only to say that theories of agency are the real discussions that people are having when discussing proximate causes of multi-causal events, and these discourses would be much better off if people cut to the chase on this point.

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