Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

In reviewing Joel Greenberg‘s A Feathered River: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), and in particular in noting his analysis of the causes of the mass disappearance of the passenger pigeon, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

[G]reenberg isn’t much interested in the mechanics of the bird’s extinction. Even if there was some other contributing factor, he observes, this doesn’t change the outcome, nor does it alter the moral calculus. Greenberg offers the analogy of a man who was pushed off a pier. If the man doesn’t know how to swim and ends up drowning, it might be said that the proximate cause of his death was his own ignorance (or lack of buoyancy). But, “culpability and the ultimate cause remain with the one who pushed.” [emphasis added]

 This example demonstrates well, I think, how causal analysis–and thus, the notion of “cause”–remains a pragmatic enterprise through and through. (The notion of an “ultimate cause” is incoherent, unfortunately.)

To see why, consider that despite being offered several “additional factors” that would explain the disappearance of the pigeons, Greenberg is interested in offering a story that has a conservationist moral: overhunting is a bad thing and ‘”conservation measures” can work.’ The various physical explanations offered–the size of pigeon flocks for instance–will not mesh with such a story and are therefore not suitable for consideration as causes. There is a “moral calculus” to be satisfied: for that, blame has to be assigned somewhere, and its subjects can only be agents of a kind. In this case, human ones.

Why would this be more satisfying for Greenberg? Well, the actions of humans are subject to discussion and critique; an assignment of blame and “culpability” and “responsibility” can provoke morally inflected discussion and lead to actions that can influence the relevant causal networks of humans and their actions in the right ways.

Greenberg’s example of the pier-pushing is interesting for just these reasons. We seek to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future, so talk of lack of buoyancy will do little to help. However, a morally inflected discourse might. Thus, we assign blame to agents again, whose beliefs and desires were the causes for their actions. Pushing people off piers is a bad thing and should be thought of as such, and so on. We could complicate the picture too, by assigning some blame to those who did not build protective railings or put up warning signs about not getting too close to pier edges. And so on.

(Incidentally, note that we could indict the lack of buoyancy of the human body as a cause too, and use it to motivate early lessons in swimming, but as a culture, we think this will have less impact than socially norming the pushing of people off piers as a bad thing.  Thus, causal analysis in that direction is a non-starter.)

Our discovery of a cause is, more than anything else, an announcement about our ends and the actions we consider will best help us to attain them.

One comment on “Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

  1. […] As most pragmatically inclined folks never tire of pointing out, causal ascription is an inherently …; our identification of causes is driven not so much by metaphysical clarity about the necessary and sufficient conditions for causation as it is by our desire to be able to produce certain effects and not others, to assign blame and responsibility at some points in the causal chain and not at others. Some parts of the causal chain appear more amenable to our influence than others and thus influence our causal ascriptions in legal and moral analysis. We cannot, for instance, do much about the chemical properties of water and its effect on human lungs when it comes to preventing deaths by drowning, but we can certainly offer swimming lessons and put up warning signs around large bodies of water. (The distinction between distal and proximal causation is a related pragmatic aspect of causal analysis; see too, my little pointer to moral agency above.) And of course, our identification of points in which culpability originates are driven very much by our–sometimes overt, sometimes concealed–motives and interests. What ends are we interested in bringing about? Where might our sympathies lie? […]

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