The Ethics of Human Rights (32): Human Rights and the Chain of Causation

Who causes human rights violations? Causation is a key factor in the attribution of moral and legal responsibility, so it’s an important topic in human rights talk. The problem is that there is often not one single cause of rights violations, and hence not one single violator. Rights violations can be the collective responsibility of an entire group or a government for instance, but the issue I want to focus on here is another type of collective responsibility. It’s possible that there is a chain of causation: a series of events taking place over a period of time, and one event causes the next one until a rights violation occurs. The question is then: is it only the last moral agent, the last one in the chain of causation that results in a rights violation, who is the violator and the morally and legally responsible party? Or do some of the agents earlier in the chain of causation also carry some responsibility?

Let me give an example. Take the case of a drunk driver causing a fatal accident and thereby violating the right to life of his victim. Just before the accident, a pub-owner willingly sold the visibly intoxicated man more alcohol. You could argue that both persons caused the accident: the drunk because of his drunk driving, and the pub-owner because he sold the drinks. Both could have taken action to avoid the accident (assuming that the driver wasn’t sufficiently intoxicated before he bought the extra drinks from the pub-owner). And because they both could have acted otherwise, they are both responsible – morally and legally – for what happened. Both have violated the rights of the victim.

Causing something isn’t a sufficient condition for responsibility. You could go further down the chain of causation and claim that the pub-owner’s parents also caused the accident, because they had the choice of having or no having a child. By having the child, they initiated a chain of causation that led to the accident. They could have taken action to avoid the accident. However, no one would claim that they are thereby responsible for the accident. The difference between the parents on the one hand and the pub-owner and the driver on the other hand, is that the parents could not have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions. Hence, responsibility requires causation plus foresight rather than simply causation (some would say that intent should be added as well). (Of course, in some legal contexts, cause is sufficient for liability: if I drive my car into another one, I may be liable for the damages even if I didn’t intend what happened and could not have foreseen it. Product liability is another example. In other legal contexts, cause is not necessary: if my dog bites you, I’m liable, even though I didn’t cause the harm. But those aren’t the cases I’m interested in).

The pub-owner and the driver could have and should have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions, and probably did foresee them in some part of their brain. We all learn that some consequences flow from some actions, with high degrees of probability. And yet they still went ahead with their actions. Hence both are responsible for what happened because they caused it, because they could have acted otherwise, and because they could have foreseen the consequences. The chain of causation leading up to the rights violation goes back many steps (and many years if not centuries), but the chain of responsibility stops somewhere along the road. It stops with the first person in the chain of causation able to foresee the ultimate result of the chain and able to act otherwise. In our example, the pub-owner.

But, of course, this example is too simple. Often we have to go back more than two steps in the chain of causation to find the first point of responsibility. Suppose the pub-owner bought his pub from some other guy who knew at the time about the reckless way in which the pub-owner serves his customers. (Suppose the pub-owner did something similar before he bought his current pub). How far back in time and in the chain of causation should we be allowed to go in order to attribute responsibility? And do all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility? Probably not; that would violate our moral intuitions, which tell us that the driver carries the heaviest burden. He had many alternative options: he could have decided not to drink so much, not to go to the pub in the first place, or take a taxi home etc. The pub-owner could of course have decided to stop selling booze, but maybe he didn’t know that the drunk was intending to drive back home. And if he knew, how could he have stopped him driving back home? The person selling the pub also could have decided to sell it to someone else, but perhaps there wasn’t another possible buyer, and perhaps he believed in redemption and didn’t want to judge a person’s future on the basis of past mistakes.

But if not all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility, how do we differentiate between the levels of responsibility of the different parties and calculate each party’s share? Does time play a role? Does responsibility diminish as time passes? Those are terribly difficult questions and most of the time we just forget about them and simply punish the last link in the chain and accord him or her the full weight of responsibility, whether this is just or not. One example in which we do try to answer these questions is when a judge or a jury takes attenuating circumstances into account when sentencing: for instance, a criminal may receive a more lenient sentence when it is clear that childhood neglect or abuse contributed to his actions. However, we rarely give the parents their part of the punishment in such cases.

These questions are relevant is a huge number of human rights cases. Take the more important example of world poverty. To some degree, one can argue that the West shares some of the responsibility for poverty in the Third World (Thomas Pogge is famous for this argument). It imposes trade restrictions, it supports corrupt dictators and deficient institutions, and it inflicted colonial rule. Some of these actions go back some steps in the chain of causation. For example, a corrupt dictator may be the last cause in the chain leading to poverty, but support for this dictator by the West is an earlier cause. In the case of colonialism, the chain of causation is complicated by the transgenerational aspect: to what extent are the people in the West who are currently alive responsible for the actions of their forefathers? More on this question here.


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (32): Human Rights and the Chain of Causation

  1. Taking the example of the pub seller, I feel the accident case might not have even crossed his mind, nor the driver might have ever thought that an accident will take place. Save some exceptional cases, the accidents are not pre planned. Here I can also argue that the accident victim should also have seen the truck coming and should have moved away from that place.
    Similarly generally no parent would neglect his child nor they would allow any body to abuse the child.
    But the human limitation is that he can not see or predict what is going to happen next moment, otherwise he may try to refrain himself from any activity which would violate the human rights of others or may land himself in trouble. Anybody takes the decision based on his knowledge and his experience, which he can recollect at that point of time (here also it is not possible for any human being to recall his total past experience and think of all the prons and cons) and his needs & destination he wants to reach.
    If one goes on thinking and thinking and analysing the prons and cons of each and every step, I do not think that he can move even a mm.

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