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Gun Control & Causality; A philosophical discussion -2015 June 19, 2015

Posted by Chris Mark in Uncategorized.
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causeThis is an update from a post in 2014.  

It is now June 2015 and with yet another shooting in the news, the debate is again raging about gun control.

I personally believe these are healthy debates but I am often frustrated by the seemingly illogical positions taken on both sides of the debate.  Last year I wrote a post titled “A Perspective on Killing from a Marine and His Rifle” in which I provide personal as well as third party information on what is required to create a ‘killer’.   Adding to this I am including information that should help people better understand causality and point to the ‘actual’ cause of an event in which a firearm is used.  This is taken from the research brief titled: “Failed State of Security II; Victim Blaming in CyberCrime

With each shooting or killing the relevant question is certainly asked as to “what caused the action?” and “how could it have been prevented?”  We all want to stop crime and violence but we must balance a number of issues.  Irrespective of political leanings or other aspects, to get to the heart of the issue it is important to understand the “cause” of the event.  Many gun control advocates posit that guns are the ’cause’ of the murder.  With this in mind let’s take a look at the concept of causality.

Understanding Causality

The simple term “cause” can be deceptively complex to understand and apply.  The application becomes much more difficult when applied to social issues and events where ambiguity, subjectivity, and moral and ethical aspects must be considered.  While the concept of cause and causality has been studied and debated by philosophers for millennia a commonly accepted definition is still not found.   It was Virgil who, in Georgics 2 in 490 said: “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” or “blessed accomplishment theirs, who can track the causes of things.[i]   The difficulty of defining the concept of “cause” is familiar to those with an interest in philosophy or science.  Without becoming a primer on the intricacies of the debate, suffice it to say that cause, like security, is necessarily contextual in nature.   Within the context of Victimology, it is important to understand the distinction between identifying what a person emotionally or philosophically believes is a ‘cause’ of an event that impacts a victim and the philosophical and legal concepts of ‘cause’ as they applies to a crime.

The Philosophical View of Causality

People often ascribe blame  or identify a cause of an event based upon their internal logical calculus or emotional belief as to what ’caused’ the event.  Within the context of firearm violence, this is particularly true.  Firearm control advocates often state that “firearms cause” violence.  While not always explicit even the argument that “if they did not have a gun, this would not have happened” is an implicit nod to the idea that the firearm was the causal agent of the event.  For this reason, it is important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of reasoning and how they apply to determining ‘cause’.  As important is the understanding of errors in logics. Within logic, errors in either reasoning or structure are known as fallacies.  With an understanding of the common fallacies that pertain to identification of cause, it is easier to understand and identify the true, or actual cause of an event.Logic, or reasoning, is described as scientia scientiarum or the science of science for the prominent and important role reasoning plays in the sciences[ii].  While formal logic has been studied for at least two millennia, and informal logic for nearly one millennium, it is the theory of fallacies that provides the tools for critical thought.  UNLV’s Distinguished Professor of Philosophy; Emeritus Maurice Finnocchiaro stated that fallacies: “may be interpreted as a more relevant contribution to the evaluation of reasoning”[iii]. Kirby and Goodpaster stated in 2007 that: “Thinking logically and identifying reasoning fallacies in one’s own and in other’s thinking is the heart of critical thinking”[iv].   The search for cause requires an understanding of logic as well as the common fallacies that relate to the concept.

A Brief History of Logic

In his seminal 1893 work Logic; Inductive and Deductive, William Minto stated that logic could be defined as a: “…system of defense against error” with the objective being the “…organization of reason against confusion and falsehood”.  While the evolution of Logic extends to Aristotle and his focus on dialectics it was in the 13th Century when Bacon articulated the concept of inductive logic that saw the creation to a separate, though related branch of study. In Sir Francis Bacon’s Opus Majus, he stated, “There are two ways of knowing, by Argument and by Experience. Argument concludes a question, but it does not make us feel certain, unless the truth be also found in experience”.  Minto also posited that logic “…shows the inquirer how to test and purge his conclusions, not how to reach them”.[v]  Applying logic, therefore, is necessary to understand whether a stated position is valid or not. Deductive, or formal, logic is a type of reasoning in which two or more premises are offered and then a conclusion  is derived that, by definition, must follow from the premises.  The structure is known as a syllogism and is critical to evaluating the validity of the argument. If the premises of a formal argument are valid then the conclusion must, by rule, be valid[vi]. Inductive or informal logic, by contrast, presents premises to support a conclusion but the conclusion is not guaranteed to follow from the premises[vii]. Mr. Bennett stated, “Arguments where the conclusion is merely based on probability, not necessity, are considered inductive arguments”.[viii] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines inductive logic as: “… most generally … the theory of the evaluation of ampliative inference”.[ix]  In short, in deductive logic, the conclusion of a valid deductive syllogism must be valid, whereas in inductive logic the conclusions are only likely to be valid.   Inductive or informal reasoning then is the type of reasoning that people apply on a daily basis.  As the validity of an inductive argument is based upon “ampliative inference” both errors in logic as well as errors in the structure of the argument can influence the inference that is taken from the presented evidence.  For this reason it is critical to understand the fallacies that affect such forms of reasoning and particularly those that impact the identification of cause.

Understanding Logical Fallacies

As stated previously, the theory of fallacies can be interpreted as the evaluation of reasoning[x].  To quote the ubiquitous Wikipedia a fallacy is defined as “…an argument that uses poor reasoning.[xi] Fallacies then are either an error in the argument’s structure or an error in the reasoning provided in the argument.  The argument is the fundamental unit of reasoning[xii] and the structure and content of an argument impacts the truth or validity of the conclusions[xiii].  For over 2 millennia philosophers have debated and studied the theory of fallacies and have attempted to define the various fallacies that affect reasoning.  At the writing of this paper over three hundred informal fallacies have been identified[xiv].  As Minto stated: “It is the existence of Fallacies that calls Logic into existence; as a practical science Logic is needed as a protection against Fallacies.”[xv] While the construct of logic contains hundreds of fallacies in four major groups, they can be grouped into the two general categories of informal and formal logical fallacies . In simple terms, formal fallacies have an error in structure of the argument.[xvi] Informal fallacies, on the other hand, have correct structure but the content of the argument has errors.[xvii]  “…an informal fallacy is a fallacy that isn’t covered by some system of deductive or inductive logic”.   Formal and informal fallacies are present in both deductive and inductive forms of logic.  Given that formal fallacies result only from the structure of an argument and not the content, they are, as Finocchiaro said “…conceptually indistinguishable from the theory of validity, since, as the textbooks point out, a formal fallacy may be regarded as any (formally) invalid argument…”.[xviii] This is not to suggest that formal fallacies are any less important to the evaluation or reasoning, rather simply to identify that they represent a different criteria of evaluation. With a basic understanding of formal and informal logic, as well as formal and informal fallacies, it becomes easier to understand if and when a presented argument is fallacious.  Causality is so critical to logic and daily life that philosophers have studied the concept for millennia and causality has numerous fallacies specific to the argument of causality.

Philosophical definitions of Cause

Numerous definitions of cause can be found throughout philosophy.  In his Regularity View of Causation (RVC), the philosopher David Hume described Cause when he said: “We may define a CAUSE to be ““An object precedent and contiguous to another, and where all the objects resembling the former are plac’d in like relations of precedency and contiguity to those objects, that resemble the latter””[xix]   While philosophical definitions of cause give some insight into the origins of our existing definitions and provide interesting fodder for debate, they are often not functionally useful or appropriate for viewing a social act such as an intentional criminal event.  Philosophy aside, an effective working definition of cause that applies the various philosophical definitions is put forth by Julian Meltzof in his book Critical Thinking about Research, when he defined cause as: “A proximal antecedent is an agent or agency that initiates a sequence of events that are necessary and sufficient in bringing about the observed effects.”(Emphasis added) Using Meltzof’s definition, it is apparent that an ‘agent’ or ‘agency’ must be the ‘initiator’ of the sequence of the events and be a ‘proximal antecedent’ to the sequence of events that brings about the effect in which we are currently interested: crime.  Using this definition in the context of a data breach supports the position that if a person or persons initiated a sequence of events that exploited vulnerabilities which resulted in the compromise of systems or data, the person is therefore the actual cause of the compromise.  The agent, in this case the person who initiated the sequence of events, is antecedent in that it preceded the effect (in this case the compromise of data) and  it is proximal in that the initiating action is not too far removed from a temporal perspective as to raise doubts about the cause.  In short, a direct line of cause and effect can be drawn between the initial action which set the sequence in motion and the effect that resulted. It is important to note the two additional aspects of cause.  The sequence of events initiated by the agent must be necessary and sufficient to bring about the effects.  Consider a situation in which a person we will call Bill fires a firearm that kills another person.  Without using a definition such as that provided by Meltzof, it could be argued that any number of factors, including Bill, were the “cause” of the fatality.  One could blame the firearm, the bullet, the firing pin, or even the propellant that fired the projectile.   Using the provided definition, it is clear that the proximal antecedent that initiated the chain of events is Bill, who pulled the trigger on the firearm which, in turn initiated the sequence of events (firing pin hits primer, primer ignites propellant, propellant burns creating pressure, pressure accelerates the bullet through the barrel etc)that resulted in the death of the other person.  This is an important point to remember, as blame is often placed on the ‘firearm’ for the violent action when in fact, it is the person initiating the sequence of evince that is the actual or primary cause.  The firearm is simply a tool the person used to achieve the desired effects.

Fallacies of Correlation and Causation

Correlation and causation are so frequently confused or intertwined that it merits discussion in this paper.  Cause, as defined by Meltzoff and many other philosophers, requires that an initiating action be a ‘proximal antecedent’ to the effect.  It is this temporal and structural relationship (ie. One event precedes another) that provides fertile ground for those seeking to find cause to make fallacious arguments or reach incorrect conclusions. As any college statistics student can attest, correlations between variables simply show whether, and to what degree, a relationship exists.  The fact that there is a relationship (positive or negative) between the variables does not imply that one is the cause of the other.  A positive correlation simply means that as one variable moves in one direction, the other(s) move in the same direction.  A negative correlation simply means that as a variable moves in one direction the other(s) move in an opposite direction.  Positive correlations are particularly relevant to the issue of assigning blame in data breaches as people can often mistake a correlation with causation.  As an example, there is a demonstrated positive correlation between the incidence of snakebites and the weekly consumption of ice cream in the Southwestern United States.[xx]  In areas where people eat more ice cream they also experience more snake bites.  This, however, is due to the geographic location and warmer weather in which people tend to prefer ice cream and which also happens to be more habitable for snakes.  The increased consumption of ice cream is unrelated to the increase in snake bites.   This simply means that as X increases, so too does Y.  In spite of the correlation, one cannot say that the former causes the latter to happen.[xxi]  There is another observed correlation between chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel Prizes per capita.[xxii] The provided examples are  of a spurious relationships. A spurious relationship is a relationship in which two events or variables have no direct causal connection, yet it may be wrongly inferred that they do, due to either coincidence or the presence of a certain third, unseen factor (referred to as a “confounding factor” or “lurking variable”)[xxiii].   If no coincidence is present then it is the third, or ‘confounding variable’ that implies causality.  As stated previously, it is the warm weather in the Southwest that creates an environment in which more ice cream is consumed, people are more active, and snakes are more active.  This results in a spurious relationship in which ice cream consumption and snakebites are positively correlated yet not causally related.

Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc

Com hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase that describes a common error fallacy within the Questionable Cause (non causa, pro causa) informal logical category.  It describes a situation, like that described between snakebites and ice cream, where people believe that correlation implies causation.  Without further information or understanding it is possible that the correlation between two events is simply spurious and has no causal relationship.  Understanding causation and correlation and what, if any, relationship exists between the two is important for those trying to ascribe blame for a crime.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Another fallacy that is often made in the evaluation of cause is that of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Translated roughly as “after this, therefore because of this” in Latin. It is the mistaken belief that one condition preceding another condition must necessarily cause the succeeding event.[xxiv]  Fans of professional baseball can witness post hoc, ergo propter hoc when players are in a batting slump or are hitting well.  Superstitious players will often adopt a ritual that they happened to have used before hitting particularly well in the belief that somehow this ritual, by preceding the batting, causes the hitter to bat well.  In reality it is nothing more than one event occurring before another event (a proximal antecedent event) and which has no causal effect. The previous examples can be considered spurious correlations or relationships in which two elements are correlated yet have no direct causal relationship.

Contributing, Enabling, and Proximate Factors

Readers clearly understand that situations cannot arise in a vacuum and that even a victim’s actions can increase the probability of an event occurring.  For example, the simple act of walking to work will certainly increase the odds of a that person being hit by a car.  The difficulty for many is understanding the difference between a contributing factor and one in which cause or blame for the event can be assigned. Contributing or enabling factors can be defined as “…a state or condition that allows something to happen that is not, by definition, the cause.”  Contributing factors provide an easy target for those who wish to ascribe cause to the crime.  People may confuse a condition which enables an action to occur as the actual cause of the event.  Consider a person carrying a large sum of money who is subsequently robbed of said money.  Without the money in their possession the robber could not have stolen the money from the victim.  Regardless of the fact that the person was carrying the money, the presence of the money did not cause the robber to commit the crime.  The robber that initiated the sequence of events that resulted in the effect (stolen money) caused the actual robbery.    Did the presence of a large sum of money create a condition in which the victim was a more attractive target?  Possibly.  If the victim was walking down a dark alley in a questionable part of town some would argue that this also contributed to the event.  The difficulty then is discerning when the victim is responsible for actions that may contribute and how to judge such actions or inactions. In the event of a crime committed with a firearm, the firearm is certainly the tool used to perpetrate the crime but it is not the ‘cause’ of the crime.   Put simply, certain conditions enable things to happen that probably would not happen otherwise. This, however, is not the cause of the event.


Based upon the information provided in this post is it reasonable to suggest that ‘guns’ are the cause of violence?  The short answer is ‘no’.  A gun is simply a tool used by a person with violent intent to achieve their objectives.  The ’cause’ as defined by law and philosophy is the ‘person’ who initiates the sequence of events intended to bring about their desired result.  People who advocate ‘gun control’ are ignoring the larger socioeconomic, psychological and other factors that motivate a person to take such action.  The firearm is an easy target for this without the desire or ability to understand the larger issues at hand.  Violence is perpetrated by people.  The firearm is a tool used by this person to perpetrate such violence.  It is not the cause of the violence.


[i] Beebee, Helen; Hitchcock, Christopher; Menzies, Peter (2009-11-12). The Oxford Handbook of Causation (Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy) (p. 1). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. [ii] Minto, W. (2011-3-24). Logic, inductive and deductive. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from Amazon.com [iii] Finocchiaro, M. A. (1981, January). Fallacies and the evolution of reasoning. American Philosophical Quarterly, 18, pp. 13 – 22.  Retrieved February 4th, 2014 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20013887 [iv] Kirby, G. R., & Goodpaster, J. R. (2007). Thinking: An interdisciplinary approach to critical and creative thought. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Prentice Hall. [v] Minto ibid [vi] Kirby & Goodpaster ibid [vii] Bennett, B. (2012). Logically fallacious: The ultimate collection of over 300 logical fallacies. Sudbury: Ebookit.com [viii] Bennett Ibid [ix] Audi, R. (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [x] Finnochiaro Ibid [xi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy [xii] Finnochiaro ibid [xiii] Levi, D. S. (1987). In Defense of informal logic. Philophy and Rhetoric, 40(4), 227-247. Retrieved February 4th, 2014 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40237520 [xiv] Bennett Ibid [xv] Minto Ibid [xvi] Pirie, M. (2007). How to win every argument: The use and abuse of logic. London: Continuum. [xvii] Vleet, V. J. E. (2012). Informal Logical Fallacies: A Brief Guide. Lanham: University Press of America [xviii] Finocchiaro Ibid [xix] Beebee, Helen; Hitchcock, Christopher; Menzies, Peter (2009-11-12). The Oxford Handbook of Causation (Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy) (p. 111). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. [xx] http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=677941 [xxi] Meltzoff, Julian (2010-06-01). Critical Thinking About Research: Psychology and Related Fields (Kindle Locations 659-661). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition. [xxii] http://epianalysis.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/chocolate/ [xxiii][xxiii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spurious_relationship [xxiv] Meltzoff, Julian (2010-06-01). Critical Thinking About Research: Psychology and Related Fields (Kindle Location 617). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.


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2. liberatingdoubt - January 6, 2017

A very clear presentation. I will use this as a link in a critical thinking discussion on gun control, so I thank you for your efforts. Isn’t it true, though, that many social scientific attributions of cause start from the less rigorous notion of “contributory factor,” i.e., factors that operate in a network of potential agents to raise the risk of an event happening? Here the requirement of constant contiguity is loosened — that is, a causal agent need not be either necessary or sufficient for the production of an effect. One would then look at the evidence for whether the gun possession (or other gun-dependent causal factors) increases the risk of gun violence — whether all other things being equal it increases the likelihood of gun violence. Although there is an interesting debate about this research — hampered by the lack of availability of data on a national scale — It’s not intuitively obvious that guns don’t raise that risk. None of this contradicts the obvious fact that individuals making choices are also part of the complete explanation. Happy new year!

Chris Mark - January 6, 2017

Thank you very much for taking the time to write a well thought comment! Have a great new year!


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Gun Control & Causality; A philosophical discussion -2015 | Global Security, Privacy, & Risk Management

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