Causation Outside the Law

In their important book, Causation in the Law, H. L. A. Hart and Tony Honore argue that causation in the law is based on causation outside the law, that the causal principles the courts rely on to determine legal responsibility are based on distinctions exercised in ordinary causal judgments. A distinction that particularly concerns them is one that divides factors that are necessary or sine qua non for an effect into those that count as causes for purposes of legal responsibility and those that do not. Hart and Honore claim that this distinction is often one of fact rather than of legal policy, and that the factual basis is to be found in the ordinary distinction we draw between causes and 'mere conditions'. If this claim is correct, we may hope to illuminate the legal distinction by articulating the principles behind the ordinary one. This is a challenging task since, as in the case of most cognitive skills, we are far better at making particular judgments than we are at stating the general principles that underlie them. Hart and Honore devote the first part of their book to this difficult task. We have, then, two large projects. One is to articulate our ordinary notion of causation, especially the distinction between cause and mere condition. This is the project of constructing an 'ordinary model'. The other is to argue for what we may call the 'shared concept claim', the claim that the concept of legal cause is based on the ordinary notion of causation, that 'causal judgments, though the law may have to systematize them, are not specifically legal. They appeal to a notion which is part of everyday life' (1985, p. lv; all references to follow are from this edition). This essay will focus on Hart and Honore's ordinary model, rather than on their shared concept claim. In my judgment, Hart and Honore's case for some version of the shared concept claim is strong, so they are right to maintain that a better understanding of our ordinary notion of..
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