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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Of Reasons and Causes (And Beating a Dead Horse?)

I will take the bait dangled by Doug, Russell and one of the commenters to offer up the philosophical interpretation of "for any reason or no reason at all," and suggest it appears in Joe Slater's explanation of the cause of action for harm caused by the actions of a mentally disturbed person.  (Joe, you are a lawyer worthy of your bar card in scurrying away from metaphysics as quickly as you can, as pointed out here.)

One way of looking at why things happen in the world is to distinguish causes from reasons.  Here's a demonstration of the difference:

Of all [intentional] actions the question can be asked:  Why do that?  This question asks not for a cause or explanation, but for a reason.  Suppose someone asks me why I struck an old man in the street.  The answer "Because electrical impulses from my brain precipitated muscular contractions, and this resulted in my hand making contact with his head" would be absurd and impertinent, however accurate as a causal explanation.  The answer "Because he annoyed me" may be inadequate in that it gives no good reason, but it is certainly not absurd.  Reasons are designed to justify action, and not primarily to explain it.  They refer to the grounds of an action, the premises from which an agent may conclude what to do.

(Roger Scruton, "Kant" in German Philosophers (1982), 69-70.)

A Kantian invokes the concept of personal autonomy and will, versus heteronomy and physical cause.  What makes me a person is my ability to act out of duty or compulsion (including the compulsions of hunger, passions, emotions, etc.), and my freedom to will the choice - obey a duty or succumb to impulse.   Reasons, if they exist, justify action.   I may do something for a reason (I choose duty or passion) or no reason (I don't bother choosing; I just do).  If the legal standard says "for any reason or no reason,"  I am simply given the choice whether to justify or not to justify.  Moreover, to pick up on Joe's point about the absence of at will liability for the actions of a mentally ill person, if I am not a rational person, and hence do not have will in the matter (a mental defect), then the explanation is by cause not reason, and we do not ascribe blame or liability to the mere cause and effect of unwilled activity in the physical world (except strict liability, but that invokes the corrective justice debate in torts and I don't want to go there).

The key, though, is to see the answer to the question "why did that happen" as different in calling for a reason (justification of the action by a rational being) versus a cause (why the action occurred in the physical world).

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 26, 2006 at 04:10 PM in Legal Theory, Lipshaw | Permalink


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Paul, I agree with your final point. I was probably inarticulate about this on one of the prior posts, but yes, I think "for no reason at all" absolves you from offering one, regardless of the metaphysics or philosophy of the mind I have managed to get myself lost in. That was my earlier point about the "third person" perspective.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 26, 2006 6:17:46 PM

My only defense to the verbosity of the following response (which I have been contemplating as I put the dinner dishes away) is that Doug started this all by raising a metaphysical question.

Russell, I think your point advances the discussion in the following way. (I don't know Batson, but I understand the mixed motive issue generally.) To bring it back to the discussion of reasons and causes in striking the man in the street, the analog to the act of hitting is the act of terminating. If you ask for the cause of the termination, you might get an answer like: "the boss stated words which were commonly understood to be performatives (see Austin, "How We Do Things With Words"), i.e., "get the hell out," and the employee complied with the performative (I guess I could get more biomechanical than that). But if you ask why was her employment terminated in a Batson context, that answer would be impertinent or absurd (to quote Prof. Scruton). What we are really doing is evaluating the adequacy of the actor's reasons for the action - and to say "she was black" or "she was too old" or "she was a she" may be inadequate (and therefore actionable) but they are not causes. We may hate the reasons, but it is not absurd to consider them to be reasons.

Three other quick thoughts. First, we might well have an actionable reason that does not cause harm. Company A with monopoly power acted with intent to monopolize in the setting of predatory prices, but it turns out its competitor Company B never lost any sales. The cause of action, to be successful, also requires real world "but for" cause (put aside proximate cause, which is policy based) and injury. That seems to me to be the nexus of a "reason or no reason" based claim to the physical world.

Second, the question how we determine the "real" reason is a good one, and interesting. Again, the action in the physical world is what it was, and assuming but for cause and harm, the question is can the action be justified with an adequate reason? We'll never really know, will we? So that's what burdens of proof, equipoise, and probative evidence are about. There are acts that we take to be proxies for the reason. Statements sometimes. Prior acts sometimes. In the case of predatory pricing, we will conclusively infer a predatory reason if you priced your product below average variable cost.

Finally, to Joe's point, since most of us in the intellectual world (since about the time of the Enlightenment reaction to the Lisbon Earthquake) don't ascribe reasons to acts of the physical, i.e. non-rational, non-capable of being willful, world, we see those acts and consequences, even if undertaken by people lacking mental capacity, to be outside of the field of inquiry into reasons.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 26, 2006 6:14:16 PM


As a fellow Kantian, I'm predisposed to agree with what you said. But... there's a temporality here that might be worth exploring. I agree that the legal standard "for any reason or no reason at all" gives the actor license to flatly refuse to explain the action when questioned. But what about in terms of what it actually licenses the actor to do, at the time of taking the action, and what motivations it licenses the actor to have, at the time of the action? Does "or no reason at all" add anything to "for any reason" at the time of the action? Does an actor making a decision have more freedom to act with the "or no reason at all" tacked onto the end, or is it purely a privilege against ex post questioning?

I would think that it's purely a privilege against ex post questioning for the reasons noted in my comment to the orignal point -- any decision (and we're really not addressing involuntary actions -- nobody fires someone while sleepwalking) necessarily has some reason behind it. It's impossible -- is it not? -- to take a voluntary action without making a decision, without having some kind of motivating factor. The set of decisions for which one might say "I don't bother choosing; I just do," is empty as to those things done consciously, isn't it?

So even under a "no reason at all" standard, I still must (necessarily) justify the action in my own head, at the beginning. I'm just exempt from providing any justification afterward, to the public.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jul 26, 2006 6:11:32 PM

Fascinating, but hold on. The distinction between justifications and physical causes sounds nice, but doesn't it break down in exactly the most critical point: when we are trying to explain human choices? This is precisely the rock on which the mixed-motive issue has run into in both Title VII (which, by the way, does pretty much the same thing to at-will employment doctrine as Batson did to peremptory strike doctrine) and equal protection contexts. In both cases, the legal test imposes a burden on the challenged party to prove that she would have made the "same-decision" even had she not harbored the illicit bias/reason. In this case, how is it possible to distinguish between the justifications articulated for one's conduct and the actual "cause" of the conduct? Aren't those really precisely the same? I certainly agree, though, that a legal rule which permits actions to be taken for "no reason" can be understood as relieving the proponent of those actions of articulating a justification. Things get complicated when the law starts to fold in even limited exceptions to the "no reason" rule, as it does in almost every instance I can think of.

Posted by: Russell Covey | Jul 26, 2006 5:12:37 PM

We violently agree. In my way of looking at it, in the at-will situation you are absolved from any justification of the action (giving a reason). We never even get to the "mental defect and therefore no reason" issue. Which we do, as you point out, very often in torts (and I think criminal law, but now I'm out of my element).

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 26, 2006 4:41:03 PM

I am indeed way out of my depth in the metaphysics part of this discussion. I would only stress that when discussing the lack of liability for a mentally disabled person causing a discharge, the "inability to form a rational basis for action" aspect of the employer's action wouldn't be legally relevant. So for example, in contrast, in tort law (where I'm on firmer ground), harmful actions are often excused if they are truly involuntary, physical disability can alter negligence analysis, etc.

But that's not what's going on in employment at-will. We don't look at the employer's reason, or lack thereof, and excuse it only if the employer is in some way disabled or acting involuntarily, or otherwise not blameworthy. Yes, that does go to the broader issue of whether people can actually do something for "no reason," which is probably the more interesting question. But again, for employment at will, the employer need not articulate any reason at all.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 26, 2006 4:34:55 PM

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