Causation and the Silly Norm Effect

In Stefan Magen & Karolina Prochownik (eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Law. Bloomsbury Press. pp. 133–168 (2023)
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In many spheres, the law takes the legal concept of causation to correspond to the folk concept (the correspondence assumption). Courts, including the US Supreme Court, tend to insist on the "common understanding" and that which is "natural to say" (Burrage v. United States) when it comes to expressions relating to causation, and frequently refuse to clarify the expression to juries. As recent work in psychology and experimental philosophy has uncovered, lay attributions of causation are susceptible to a great number of unexpected factors, some of which seem rather peripheral to causation. One of those is the norm effect (Knobe & Fraser, 2008): Agents who, in acting as they do, break a salient norm, are more likely to be considered as having caused a certain consequence than when they do not violate a norm. According to some (e.g., Alicke, 1992) this constitutes a bias. According to others (e.g., Sytsma, 2020), the folk concept of causation is sensitive to normative factors, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In this paper, we explore the question whether the norm effect should be considered a bias from the legal perspective on the one hand, and from the psychological perspective on the other. To do this, we test whether norms which are nonpertinent to the consequences or outright silly also impact causation judgements. The data from two preregistered experiments (total N=593) clearly show they do. This, we argue, makes the bias interpretation plausible from the psychological perspective, and both plausible and problematic from the legal perspective. It also shows that the law should abstain from unreflectively assuming conceptual correspondence between legal and ordinary language concepts.



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Author Profiles

Markus Kneer
University of Zürich
Levin Güver
University College London

Citations of this work

Causation, Foreseeability, and Norms.Levin Güver & Markus Kneer - 2023 - Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 45:888–895.

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References found in this work

Cause and Norm.Christopher Hitchcock & Joshua Knobe - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (11):587-612.
No luck for moral luck.Markus Kneer & Edouard Machery - 2019 - Cognition 182 (C):331-348.
Graded Causation and Defaults.Joseph Y. Halpern & Christopher Hitchcock - 2015 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 66 (2):413-457.

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