I would ask if this is a logical fallacy, but I don't think you can consider wrongful attribution of blame to be a logical fallacy, because attributing blame is a normative claim, not a descriptive one.

Suppose an event happens. Looking back at the chain of events, we see that person A did an action such that, had this action not occurred, the event would not have happened. We then blame person A for the event, and hold them morally responsible.

For example, suppose I have a gambling problem. Because of this problem, I steal money from my cousin's wallet and gamble it away. This triggers my cousin, who cares about me, to search for a gambling anonymous group for me to join. He finds one and drives over there. In the parking lot of the site, he gets accosted by a mugger who attacks, and essentially kills him. Now my family blames me and my gambling problem for my cousin's death.

Clearly it's true that, in an indirect way, my action caused my cousin to die. But it's a misattribution of blame to say that I'm morally responsible for my cousin's death based on my action. It would, however, be appropriate to say that I'm morally responsible for the loss of my cousin's money.

I believe that this is such a common error in argumentation that there must be a term for it.

6 Answers 6


This is well-known in ethics, but not as a flaw of argumentation, rather as the problem of causal resposibility. The problem is thorny because drawing the line depends on resolving highly controversial issues in ethics and metaphysics, free will, attribution of agency, efficacy of proximate vs mediate causes, etc. Sartorio's Causation and Responsibility and Del Coral's Social Commitment and Responsibility are recent works that discuss it.

To see why deciding what does or does not count for responsibility is challenging recall that there are causal chains connecting any event to multiple past actions, by people and not. Where in those chains, and how, do we place the responsibility or blame? Is this placing somehow objective or does it entirely depend on social conventions, context-specific interests, etc.? How much of responsibility/blame goes to various links in the chain? If one accepts causal determinism it is not clear that the blame can be apportioned at all, as Del Coral points out:

"...by analysing the causes of the agent's actions, we pass the buck backwards and relieve the agent from her responsibility. The buck would stop by showing that the agent acted freely (this is, she could have chosen not to act). Determinism and free will, enter into conflict."

Even if we accept free will or some form of compatibilism, there is no consensus (or even majority) solution to the resposibility apportionment, and therefore there is no sure fire way to resolve even your example. Here is one way, sketched by Valentyne:

"To be agent-responsible for an outcome, the agent must be causally responsible for the outcome and the outcome must be “suitably reflective” of the agent’s autonomous agency. There is much debate about what exactly determines when an individual is agent-responsible for something, but it’s clear that one can be causally responsible for harm without being agent-responsible for it.

Presumably, your cousin's death is not “suitably reflective” of your intentions for you to be held responsible for it. This reliance on intent generally guides common-sensical and legal assignment of responsibility. But it is not without its pitfalls due to the general obscurity of "intent", and the phenomena like transferred intent, willful ignorance, irresistable impulse, etc.

And under some ethical positions you do share a portion of the blame, say because you failed to resolve your gambling problem, and knew, or should have known, that it might put people who care about you in harm's way. This would be a case of "absence causation", responsibility for inaction/omission. This notion is problematic even in more straightforward examples than yours, as Sartorio points out:

"If we were to say that my failure to water a plant that I promised to water is a cause of its death, then we would probably also have to say that the Queen of England’s failure to water the plant is a cause of its death (because it is also true of the Queen of England that, had she watered the plant, the plant would have survived)."

But there are responses to such skepticism. Woodward, for example, exempts agents without a serious opportunity to act, which would exclude the Queen of England. But I am not sure if it entirely rules out the blame in your situation. In the legal system there is a notion of "felony murder", which classifies accidental killing in the commission of another crime as murder, even when the person did not even physically do the killing (but, say, an accomplice did). It is of course a long way from your scenario, but is there a difference in quality or merely in magnitude?

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    I'm not sure question of determinism is entirely relevant here, because a compatibilist who accepts determinism could still argue that moral blame is due. Also, which ethical position would blame me for my cousin's death? You say that the gambling problem "might put people I know in harm's way", but he died because he went to the wrong parking lot at the wrong time. It could just as easily have been the parking lot of a toy store which holds a toy his kid asked for. Would his kid be equally responsible to me in according to this ethical position? Anyway, thanks for the detailed answer. Commented May 26, 2017 at 0:55
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    @ Bridgeburners Not everybody is a compatibilist (compatibilism has serious problems). On hard determinist's position no one is responsible for anything except by incidental convention. Arguably, he still went to the wrong parking lot at the wrong time because of you. You will find it very difficult to parse causes into those that count and those that don't in a principled way. Surely, your portion of the blame, if any, is tiny, compared to the actual murderer's on any reasonable position, but some deontologists impose (perhaps overly) strong prior duty to act, creating "crimes of omission".
    – Conifold
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 2:10

Blame and accountable are two different things. I can blame the destruction caused by a tornado on the tornado, but I can't hold the tornado accountable. The key is intention. Likewise, if a person does something, they are to blame. That's just factual. A man speeding down a road and hitting someone is not charged with murder unless it can be proved he intentionally hit the person.


Blame should always go side by side with intent.

Since the gambler didn't have any intent for the murder of his cousin, he cannot be blamed for the murder.

Every event which occurs, has numerous prerequisites, the non-occurrence of even one of which would prevent the event from happening. For ex, while going to the anonymous group, there might have been a traffic jam due to a lousy driver, which led to them being late by a few minutes and running into the muggers. Had there been no jam, they would have got there a few minutes early thereby avoiding the muggers. In such a case, it is just faulty thinking to blame the lousy driver for a murder.


I'm not aware of a term for this, although in law, the "but for" test is actually used as an argument to show that someone was negligent.

See more here:


I agree it's clearly flawed


Yes as you can imagine the legal field had to deal with this problem. I'll just take the field of tort law for example. "But for" causation is not enough. But for the fact that I woke up, did something knowingly stupid that if traced out at some long length resulted in harm to another or others does not confer legal liability on the original actor. One's recklessness or negligence must be the proximate cause of the injury. This was worked out in case law torturously over the years. If someone cares to study proximate cause under our legal system have at it, it may add something in the way of an answer, but it has largely and happily faded from my memory.


You do not offer an analysis of causation or, more particularly, of the opaque phrase, 'simply its causal factor'. No implication of moral blame follows from a merely causal statement. Let's talk in terms of events, a reasonable convention in causal analysis. A fell over and caused B to break an arm : for convenience let's also give the events the same names : A caused B. A caused B only if (i) A and B occurred and (ii) A was necessary and sufficient, in the circumstances, for the occurrence of B. No moral judgement, of blame or anything else, follows from this bare causal analysis. There are no moral terms in the causal description, therefore no moral conclusions can be deduced from it.

It is perfectly possible, of course, to offer a different analysis of causation. Feel free, anyone, to go ahead. But the principle will still hold that from a mere statement of causal relation, no moral conclusion follows. In terms of the question, there is no logical derivation from being a causal factor to being open to blame. An attribution of blame needs at least one extra premise, a premise containing a moral term. E.g., 'Anyone who breaks someone's arm by falling on them is morally to blame' - but there could be no such plausible moral premise.

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