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Spring 2000


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1. But For What John Did, Alice Would Not Have Died
John shoots Alice, intending her death. He hits her in the arm. An ambulance takes her to the local hospital where she is exposed to a nurse who has scarlet fever. Alice contracts scarlet fever and dies. But for what John did, Alice would not have died. Did John cause Alice's death?



Commentary. John's act appears to meet the two prerequisites for the commission of a crime. He has acted deliberately and badly, and yet did he do it? He did shoot Alice; that much is certain. And Alice did die; that seems true, too. But did John cause Alices death?

If we think of the chain of events which unfold in this scenario as a simple causal sequence on the model, say, of one billiard balls rolling to hit another billiard ball which then rolls and hits yet another ball and that ball rolls into the pocket at the far end of the pool table, Johns shooting of Alice caused her to have to go to the hospital which caused her to meet a nurse with scarlet fever which caused to die. Nothing could be simpler, plainer or more obvious. So, John did do it. No?

Let's think about this. The question of legal causation, of who did what to whom, is perhaps even more fundamental in sorting out the guilt and innocence of a defendant than the question whether a bad act was committed and if so, whether it was done with a guilty mind. It is more fundamental because we, surely, do not wish to hold someone responsible for an act that they did not do. It is, therefore, no mere coincidence that we have come to refer to crime novels as Whodunits. Who did it, indeed? Was it the butler in the pantry? Or the maid in the parlor? Or Colonel Mustard on the front lawn? Or that nurse with her scarlet fever in the hospital?

When is an act or event the cause of some other act or event? Say at the precise moment that John pulls the trigger, you sneeze. You happen to live miles away from this incident, but at the exact same moment that John shoots Alice, you sneeze. Immediately after you sneeze, Alice is struck in the arm by a bullet. She is then taken to the hospital and some time later she dies. Did your sneeze cause Alices death? I know youre saying to yourself, my sneeze had nothing to do with it; this is silly. Well, yes, its silly. But what is the reason for thinking that your sneeze did not cause Alice's death? One reason, surely, for our thinking that you and your sneeze are irrelevant to this particular chain of events is to point out that Alices death would have occurred even if you had not sneezed. And this observation promotes, in turn, the further idea that for one act or event (A) to be the cause of some other act or event (B), it must be true, at least, that B would not have happened if A hadn't happened. A must be a necessary condition for B.

The difference between John's pulling the trigger and your sneeze in this scenario is Johns shooting of Alice is a necessary condtion of Alices death, and your sneeze isnt. Putting the matter this way helps to bring more explicitly to light why it is tempting to think that Johns action did cause Alices death.

One way to test whether an act or event is the cause of some other act or event is to apply what is called the sine qua non test (the without which not test): Without what so-and-so did, such-and-such would not have happened. Johns pulling of the trigger seems to pass this test and to pass it with flying colors. If he had not pulled the trigger, Alice would not have had to go to the hospital, and had she not gone to the hospital, she would not have died. But for what Johm did, Alice would not have died. He is the cause of it all! Or is he? What about the nurse with her scarlet fever? What about her?

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Page last edited: December 18, 1999