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Sex and the problem with interventionist definitions of causation

Summary:
Sex and the problem with interventionist definitions of causation We suggest that “causation” is not univocal. There is a counterfactual/interventionist notion of causation—of use when one is designing a public policy to intervene and solve a problem—and an historical, or more exactly, etiological notion—often of use when one is identifying a problem to solve … Consider sex: Susan did not get the job she applied for because the prejudiced employer took her to be a woman; she presented as a woman because she was raised as a girl; she was raised as a girl because she was biologically female; and so on. The causation is palpable—Susan’s sex caused her not to get the job she applied for. The counterfactual, if Susan were male and had applied for the job, she

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Sex and the problem with interventionist definitions of causation

Sex and the problem with interventionist definitions of causationWe suggest that “causation” is not univocal. There is a counterfactual/interventionist notion of causation—of use when one is designing a public policy to intervene and solve a problem—and an historical, or more exactly, etiological notion—often of use when one is identifying a problem to solve …

Consider sex: Susan did not get the job she applied for because the prejudiced employer took her to be a woman; she presented as a woman because she was raised as a girl; she was raised as a girl because she was biologically female; and so on. The causation is palpable—Susan’s sex caused her not to get the job she applied for. The counterfactual, if Susan were male and had applied for the job, she would have gotten it, suggests a vague, miraculous transformation of Susan into some unspecified male (maybe one with the same qualifications, provided Susan did not attend any all-female schools)— but it makes no literal sense as a practical intervention. Suppose, however, a past intervention to make Susan male, say one of her X chromosomes was to be changed to some Y in utero.

To make the counterfactual come out true, the intervention must be expanded to also bring it about that in the course of life as an adult male she applies for the job. Pretty much all of the world history that would interact with her in the course of her male life would have to be intervened upon to bring it about that she, as a male, applied for the job. That would be a remarkably prescient intervention indeed and certainly not a reasonable one. The counterfactual, if Susan had been made a male in utero, Susan would have gotten the job, is almost certainly not true. Etiological causation does not direct us to practical interventions—for that, we need to focus on other causes that are feasibly and ethically manipulable. But it can provide us with a rationale for wanting to change outcomes: Susan did not get the job because of a biological fact about her that is irrelevant to her qualifications, and we think that is unjust.

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Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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