Skip to main content Accessibility help

A Job for Philosophers: Causality, Responsibility, and Explaining Social Inequality

  • ROBIN ZHENG (a1)

People disagree about the causes of social inequality and how to most effectively intervene in them. These may seem like empirical questions for social scientists, not philosophers. However, causal explanation itself depends on broadly normative commitments. From this it follows that (moral) philosophers have an important role to play in determining those causal explanations. I examine the case of causal explanations of poverty to demonstrate these claims. In short, philosophers who work to reshape our moral expectations also work, on the back end, to restructure acceptable causal explanationsand hence solutionsfor social inequality. Empirical and normative inquiry, then, are a two-way street.

On se dispute souvent au sujet des causes des inégalités sociales et de la meilleure façon de les corriger. Ces discussions peuvent sembler relever du domaine des sciences sociales plus que de la philosophie. Cependant, l’explication causale des inégalités sociales dépend elle-même d’engagements normatifs : les philosophes ont donc ici un rôle important à jouer. J’examine le cas des explications causales de la pauvreté afin de démontrer ces assertions. Pour résumer, les philosophes qui essaient de remodeler nos attentes morales peuvent également restructurer des explications causales des inégalités sociales — et donc proposer des solutions à celles-ci. La recherche empirique et la recherche normative sont donc en relation de réciprocité.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Alesina, Alberto, Glaeser, Edward, and Sacerdote, Bruce 2001 “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have a European-style Welfare System?,” in Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, edited by Brainard, William C. and Perry, George L.. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 187277.
Alicke, Mark D. 1992 “Culpable Causation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63 (3): 368378.
Anderson, Elizabeth 2004 “Uses of Value Judgments in Science: A General Argument, with Lessons from a Case Study of Feminist Research on Divorce.” Hypatia 19 (1): 124.
Anderson, Martin 1978 Welfare: The Political Economy of Welfare Reform in the United States. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
Barrett, Christopher B., and Maxwell, Daniel G. 2005 Food Aid after Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role. New York: Routledge.
Becker, Marc 2007 “World Social Forum.” Peace & Change 32 (2): 203220.
Benétreau-Dupin, Yann, and Beaulac, Guillaume 2015 “Fair Numbers: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy.” Ergo 2 (3): 5981.
Benforado, Adam, and Hanson, Jon 2005 “Costs of Dispositionism: The Premature Demise of Situationist Law and Economics.” Maryland Law Review 64 (1-2): 2484.
Blank, Rebecca M. 2003 “Selecting among Anti-Poverty Policies: Can an Economist Be Both Critical and Caring?” Review of Social Economy 61 (4): 447469.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Wacquant, Loïc J.D. 1992 An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie 1979 The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bullock, Heather 2006 “Justifying Inequality: A Social Psychological Analysis of Beliefs about Poverty and the Poor.” National Poverty Center Working Paper Series, #06–08.
Carr, Stuart C., and MacLachlan, Malcolm 1998 “Actors, Observers, and Attributions for Third World Poverty: Contrasting Perspectives from Malawi and Australia.” The Journal of Social Psychology 138 (2): 189202.
Choi, Incheol, Nisbett, Richard E., and Norenzayan, Ara 1999 “Causal Attribution Across Cultures: Variation and Universality.” Psychological Bulletin 125 (1): 4763.
Collingwood, R.G. 1940 An Essay on Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill 1990/2000 Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
CONSAD Research Corporation 2009 “An Analysis of Reasons for the Disparity in Wages between Men and Women.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.
Corcoran, Mary, Duncan, Greg J., Gurin, Gerald, and Gurin, Patricia 1985 “Myth and Reality: The Causes and Persistence of Poverty.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 4 (4): 516536.
da Costa, Leonor Pereira, and Dias, José G. 2015 “What Do Europeans Believe to Be the Causes of Poverty? A Multilevel Analysis of Heterogeneity within and between Countries.” Social Indicators Research 122 (1): 120.
Danziger, Sheldon, and Weinberg, Daniel H. 1986 Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Darby, Derrick 2010 “Reparations and Racial Inequality.” Philosophy Compass 5 (1): 5566.
Darby, Derrick, and Branscombe, Nyla R. 2012 “Egalitarianism and Perceptions of Inequality.” Philosophical Topics 40 (1): 725.
Deveaux, Monique 2015 “The Global Poor as Agents of Justice.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 12 (2): 125150.
Di Tella, Rafael, Galiant, Sebastian, and Schargrodsky, Ernesto 2007 “The Formation of Beliefs: Evidence from the Allocation of Land Titles to Squatters.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 122 (1): 209241.
Eccles, Jacquelynne S. 1987 “Gender Roles and Women’s Achievement-Related Decisions.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 11 (2): 135172.
England, Paula 1992 Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence. New York: Transaction Publishers.
Feagin, Joe R. 1972 “Poverty: We Still Believe That God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” Psychology Today 6 (6): 101129.
Feinberg, Joel 1970 Doing & Deserving: Essays in the Theory of Responsibility. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fricker, Miranda 2007 Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Friedman, Milton 1962 Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Galster, George C., and Carr, James H. 1991 “Housing Discrimination and Urban Poverty of African-Americans.” Journal of Housing Research 2 (2): 87123.
Gannett, Lisa 1999 “What’s in a Cause?: The Pragmatic Dimensions of Genetic Explanations.” Biology and Philosophy 14 (3): 349373.
Gauri, Varun, and Sonderholm, Jorn 2012 “Global Poverty: Four Normative Positions.” Journal of Global Ethics 8 (2-3): 193213.
Gilbert, Daniel T., and Malone, Patrick S. 1995 “The Correspondence Bias.” Psychological Bulletin 117 (1): 2138.
Gilbert, Margaret 1989 On Social Facts. London: Routledge.
Gilligan, Carol 1982 In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Guimond, Serge, and Palmer, Douglas L. 1990 “Type of Academic Training and Causal Attributions for Social Problems.” European Journal of Social Psychology 20 (1): 6175.
Hacking, Ian 1995 “The Looping Effect of Human Kinds,” in Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, edited by Sperber, Dan, Premack, David, and Premack, Ann James. London: Clarendon Press, pp. 351383.
Hanson, Jon 2012 Ideology, Psychology, and Law. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harding, Sandra 1991 Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Hart, H.L.A., and Honoré, Tony 1985 Causation in the Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hart, H.L.A. 1958 “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals.” Harvard Law Review 71 (4): 593629.
Hartsock, Nancy 1983 “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, edited by Harding, Sandra and Hintikka, Merrill B.. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 283310.
Hitchcock, Christopher, and Knobe, Joshua 2009 “Cause and Norm.” Journal of Philosophy 106 (11): 587612.
Hunt, Matthew O. 2004 “Race/Ethnicity and Beliefs about Wealth and Poverty.” Social Science Quarterly 85 (3): 827853.
Kahan, Dan M., and Braman, Donald 2006 “Cultural Cognition and Public Policy.” Yale Law & Policy Review 24 (1): 149172.
Keynes, John Maynard 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Kitcher, Philip 1996 The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Knobe, Joshua 2009 “Folk Judgments of Causation.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 40 (2): 238242.
Knobe, Joshua 2010 “Person as Scientist, Person as Moralist.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (4): 315329.
Kronfeldner, Maria 2014 “Commentary: How Norms Make Causes.” International Journal of Epidemiology 43 (6): 17071713.
Kuhn, Thomas 1977 The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lerner, Melvin J. 1980 The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press.
Lewis, David 1973 “Causation.” Journal of Philosophy 70 (17): 556567.
Lewis, Oscar 1966 La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York. New York: Random House.
Longino, Helen E. 1990 Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Longino, Helen E. 1995 “Gender, Politics, and the Theoretical Virtues.” Synthese 104 (3): 383397.
Lukács, György 1971 History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Mackie, J.L. 1965 “Causes and Conditions.” American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (4): 245264.
Markus, Hazel R., and Kitayama, Shinobu 1991 “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review 98 (2): 224253.
Marx, Karl 1867/1976 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume One). London: Penguin Books.
Maseko, Nokwanda, Viljoen, Diana, and Muzindutsi, Paul-Francois 2014 “Differences in Perceived Causes of Poverty between First and Third Year Economics Students in a Higher Education Institution.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 5 (21): 245250.
McLoyd, Vonnie C. 1998 “Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Child Development.” American Psychologist 53 (2): 185204.
Mill, John Stuart 1843/2011 A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, Jean Baker 1976 Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Murray, Charles A. 1984 Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books.
Ng, Irene Y.H., and Koh, Grace 2012 “Chinese Singaporean Attitudes Towards Poverty and Inequality: A Comparative Analysis.” International Journal of Social Welfare 21 (2): 149159.
Nisbett, Richard E., Peng, Kaiping, Choi, Incheol, and Norenzayan, Ara 2001 “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition.” Psychological Review 108 (2): 291310.
Nyhan, Brendan, and Reifler, Jason 2010 “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32 (2): 303330.
O’Rourke, Michael, and Crowley, Stephen J. 2012 “Philosophical Intervention and Cross-Disciplinary Science: The Story of the Toolbox Project.” Synthese 190 (11): 19371954.
Piketty, Thomas 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Reskin, Barbara 1993 “Sex Segregation in the Workplace.” Annual Review of Sociology 19 (1): 241270.
Ripstein, Arthur 1994 “Equality, Luck, and Responsibility.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 23 (1): 323.
Ross, Lee 1977 “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 10, edited by Berkowitz, Leonard. New York: Academic Press, pp. 173220.
Russell, Bertrand 1912 “On the Notion of Cause.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 13: 126.
Sampson, Edward E. 1989 “The Challenge of Social Change for Psychology: Globalization and Psychology’s Theory of the Person.” American Psychologist 44 (6): 914921.
Saul, Jennifer 2013 “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy,” in Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?, edited by Hutchison, Katrina and Jenkins, Fiona. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3960.
Schaffer, Jonathan 2005 “Contrastive Causation.” Philosophical Review 114 (3): 327358.
Schweiger, Gottfried 2016 “Epistemic Injustice and Powerlessness in the Context of Global Justice: An Argument for ‘Thick’ and ‘Small’ Knowledge.” Wagadu. A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies 15: 104115.
Searle, John R. 1995 The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.
Sesardic, Neven, and De Clercq, Raphael 2014 “Women in Philosophy: Problems with the Discrimination Hypothesis.” Academic Questions 27 (4): 461473.
Shaver, Kelly G. 1970 “Defensive Attribution: Effects of Severity and Relevance on the Responsibility Assigned for an Accident.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 14 (2): 101113.
Shildrick, Tracy, and Rucell, Jessica 2015 “Sociological Perspectives on Poverty.” York, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Smiley, Marion 1992 Moral Responsibility and the Boundaries of Community: Power and Accountability from a Pragmatic Point of View. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Spencer, Herbert 1910 Social Statics. London: Watts and Co.
Steger, Manfred B., and Wilson, Erin K. 2012 “Anti-Globalization or Alter-Globalization? Mapping the Political Ideology of the Global Justice Movement.” International Studies Quarterly 56 (3): 439454.
Strevens, Michael 2008 Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tversky, Amos, and Kahneman, Daniel 1974 “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Science 185 (4157): 11241131.
van Fraassen, Bas C. 1980 The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Vu, Catherine M. 2010 “The Influence of Social Science Theories on the Conceptualization of Poverty in Social Welfare.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 20 (8): 9891010.
Waters, Kenneth C. 2007 “Causes That Make a Difference.” Journal of Philosophy 104 (11): 551579.
Wilson, William J. 1987 The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Woodward, James 2010 “Causation in Biology: Stability, Specificity, and the Choice of Levels of Explanation.” Biology & Philosophy 25 (3): 287318.
Woodward, James 2003 Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.
World Bank 1990 “World Development Report: Poverty.” Washington D.C.: World Bank.
World Bank 2015 “World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior.” Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
Young, Iris Marion 2011 Responsibility for Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed