Making a Difference

Philosophica 51 (1993)
An effect is typically explained by citing a cause, but not any cause will do. The oxygen and the spark were both causes of the fire, but normally only the spark explains it. What then distinguishes explanatory from unexplanatory causes? One might attempt to characterise this distinction in terms of intrinsic features of the causes. For example, some causes are changes while others are standing conditions, and one might claim that only the changes explain. Both the spark and the oxygen are causes of the fire, but only the spark is a change, and perhaps this is the reason only the spark explains. On the other hand, one might attempt to characterise the distinction between explanatory and unexplanatory causes in terms of the relation between cause and effect. For example, only some causes are sufficient for their effects, and perhaps only sufficient causes explain. There is, however, an elementary feature of the distinction between explanatory and unexplanatory causes that neither an intrinsic nor a relational approach are well-suited to capture. This is the so-called `interest-relativity' of explanation: the very same cause may be explanatory for one person but not for another. When there is a famine in India, an Indian peasant may explain this by citing the drought, while a member of the World Health Organization may instead cite the failure of the Indian government to stock adequate reserves of food (Hart and Honore, 1985, pp.
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    Alex Broadbent (2012). Causes of Causes. Philosophical Studies 158 (3):457-476.
    Jonathan Birch (2009). Irretrievably Confused? Innateness in Explanatory Context. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 40 (4):296-301.
    Arash Pessian (2010). Reference to the Best Explanation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 41 (4):363-374.
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