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People appeared to approach this question as if it were about whether I can be held liable for the action of breaking a window (the main example). However, this question has nothing to do with law; instead, it is a purely philosophical question that seeks to establish how a chain of causes should be interpreted. To eliminate this misconception, I have added a second example, and I've also adjusted the title to match both examples.

Main example:

If I were to decide to break a window by smashing it with a hammer, for example, out of the hammer and me, which would be the direct and the indirect cause of the window breaking?

I was thinking that the direct cause is the hammer, because it is what'll interact with the window. However, I'm the one who ultimately breaks the window: it wouldn't have broken if it weren't for me, which is why I wonder whether I'm the direct cause, and whether the hammer is an indirect cause because I'm merely using it as a tool.

Second example:

If I were to hit a baseball with a bat, am I the direct cause of the ball's movement because I'm swinging, or is the bat the direct cause because it connects directly with the ball? Which one of us is the indirect cause?

What is the right way of reasoning in such situations?

  • I remembered "Guns don't kill people; people do". In this way hammer on its own could not break a window. Also, you may deepen further and say that window was broken only by a small area of hammer, therefore the hammer as a whole is not a direct cause either. – rus9384 Aug 3 '18 at 21:32
  • I think it is Aristotle that would say that you are the efficient cause. The hammer is the material cause. Material cause cannot happen without the efficient cause. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 4 '18 at 9:43
  • Aristotle's approach was smart, but I believe that causality has been understood differently in the present, which would mean that I cannot make use of Aristotle's classifications. – user3776022 Aug 4 '18 at 12:33
  • @user3776022. Hi ! My answer takes no legal line at all. I specifically exclude it. Regarding the edit : if you cause something to happen through an intermediary, how can you be other than indirectly the cause ? Indirectness seems entailed by the fact that you act through an intermediary. The intermediary separates you from direct causal action on the object (or whatever). The edit empties the question. I think your original wording was fine. It's not your fault if your question was read the wrong way. It was a darned good question as it stood. Best - Geoff – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 4 '18 at 16:25
  • @user3776022. The second example is fine, though I think the first example on its own illustrates your question perfectly. I have removed the reference to acting through an intermediary because this naturally suggests indirect causation, and so answers the question implicitly in advance. – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 4 '18 at 17:58
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I will try to follow some examples, starting from direct, to see where it goes.

An obvious direct cause would be to break the window with, say, your foot. You are responsible. In your question you decide to break the window, which also shows intent.

Now consider wearing a shoe while breaking the window ‘with your foot’; I would say that this is equivalent with the previous, direct cause.

Now slip over a banana peel, and accidentally break the window with your foot (consider with and without shoe at the same time for brevity). You are the direct cause, but the intent is gone and seems to be irrelevant.

Now that it is an accident, you may no longer be responsible, so responsibility could also be irrelevant.

Here is where I see the tipping point. The thing that actually breaks the window is no longer ‘a part of you’.

Take off the other shoe and use it to break the window (it should now be equivalent to using a hammer); you would be responsible, but it no longer seems direct.

Indirect would certainly be when your shoe flew off you foot, or out of your hand, when you slipped over the banana peel; you are not responsible, and it is certainly indirect.

This would be the end of the examples. To me, at least, making the chain of events longer, does not make it more indirect.

  • I made an edit. You may roll this back or further edit. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. The question wants to know what the "direct and the indirect cause of the window breaking" is. I'm not sure from your answer what your view is on that. Also, if you have a reference to someone else who has the same view that would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go to get more information. – Frank Hubeny Aug 4 '18 at 11:28
  • @FrankHubeny Thank you, I made my comment more like an actual answer. – user34458 Aug 4 '18 at 13:52
  • I keep coming back to this answer mainly because it highlights the problem of what constitutes as an extension of me, and what constitutes as a separate cause (which every commenter here appears to have a different opinion on). It's an insightful answer, and I'm trying to establish whether it's the true answer to my question. – user3776022 Aug 5 '18 at 8:09
  • @user3776022 I am also still struggling with this. Obviously, regarding your foot as a tool does not fit nicely in this series of examples. – user34458 Aug 5 '18 at 14:29
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I can't see that the hammer is the cause of anything here. This is not merely because it is an inert object; an inert object can be part of a causal chain of objects and events. Rather, it is not here the cause of the broken window (or of the window's breaking) since it enters into a causal relationship with the window only when you decide and act to break the window by using the hammer. Because you break the window by using the hammer, you are the cause. The hammer only features in a description of your causal action : 'X broke the window by using the hammer'.

To spell out in a bit more detail ...

Direct causation

You are the direct cause of the broken window, since you broke the window by using the hammer; you directly caused E, the broken (or the breaking of the) window, because there were no casually intermediary events between your wielding the hammer and the effect on the window.

Indirect causation

In indirect causation there is and must be such casually intermediary events. An intervening causal chain carries your causal influence to E, causes E as an eventual effect. An example of indirect causation would be (for instance) your holding the hammer, walking, slipping on the grass, the hammer flying from your hand, hitting a tree and bouncing from the tree to the window, and breaking the window.

I do not know what the legal analysis of the situation would be, but this is a philosophy site and I answer in line with my philosophical understanding of the concept of causation.

My handling of the broken window example readily transfers to that of the baseball bat. The same logic applies.

References

Stanford, a world-class university, has a large number of philosophy sites of high quality. These may be your best online source.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-metaphysics/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-counterfactual/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-causation/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-probabilistic/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/

Here are the most useful Stanford sites. Mental causation is not immediately relevant, so you might want to skip it. Ignore 'plato' in the titles - this is simply Stanford's standard heading in this area and I think in philosophy generally. You will not be given a dose of Platonism.

  • I wasn't sure that the provided definitions of direct & indirect causation were your own, or those of Douglas Ehring, so I skimmed through Ehring's article. However, I found nothing that would be relevant to my question. Where exactly did you find Ehring's explanations as you've provided them now? – user3776022 Aug 4 '18 at 22:10
  • Sorry, I didn't use Ehring to derive the definitions. As an ex-philosophy lecturer, I often just think for myself or find ideas already in my head. I thought Ehring's article might be of independent interest. Sorry if that caused unnecessary confusion. Point is, though, what do you think of the definitions ? Perhaps that's more important than tracing them to a source. I really liked your question in its original form. It was both original and interesting. You have definitely what it takes to be a philosopher. That crucial knack of asking questions others don't. Best - Geoff – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 5 '18 at 5:54
  • You may already be a philosopher - I don't know your situation. If you are, you have a bright future. – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 5 '18 at 5:56
  • Thank you for the words of praise. A aspire to be a philosopher of religion, and I'm asking this question because I need to explain causality to the reader of a book that I'm writing. I too have my own idea about causality, and it's different from yours as well as that of other commenters. Because we all have different interpretations, I cannot accept an answer yet, and I'm now looking for that one accepted authority (source) that explains causality in a way that others wouldn't be eager to challenge. – user3776022 Aug 5 '18 at 7:42
  • Thanks. When you ask a question like this, Answerers are going to use the concept of causality they have chosen and are familiar with. I used a basically Humean version; I am naturally aware of others. Why not ask a question directly about causality in which Answerers will need to spell out their concepts of causation. If you're 'looking for that one accepted authority (source) that explains causality in a way that others wouldn't be eager to challenge', I am not sure there is any such authority and if there is then I think you need a different question to locate it. – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 5 '18 at 10:20
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If I use an object to produce an effect, am I the direct or the indirect cause of the effect?

If I were to hit a baseball with a bat, am I the direct cause of the ball's movement because I'm swinging, or is the bat the direct cause because it connects directly with the ball?

Aristotle identified four causes of change. In this example, the change is the alteration in the flight of the baseball. As applied here, the causes are: material, the original direction of the ball; efficient, the bat striking the ball; formal, the new direction of flight; and final, the purpose, which is absent when discussing inanimate objects.

In relation to the bat and ball, the batter is one step back in the process: material, the original position of the bat; efficient, the action of the batter; formal, the arc of the bat through the air; and final, the batter’s purpose of scoring a run for the team.

So, strictly speaking, the batter is an indirect cause, although most people would see the two events (bat swinging and ball flying) as one, and so would call the batter’s actions a direct cause.

My original answer used an analogy to causation in legal reasoning, and this use seems to have sent the discussion off on a tangent. This edit is a second try.

  • I cannot accept this as an answer for two reasons: First, I consider there to be two causes for the window breaking: the first is my throwing of the hammer, and the second is the hammer's smashing of the window, whereas you consider only the throw of the hammer. Second, you've classified the throw of the hammer as the direct cause, so that means that I'm the direct cause because I'm throwing. However, you've also stated that the more distant cause is the indirect cause, so I'm also the indirect cause because the hammer's smashing of the window is more proximous than my throwing it. – user3776022 Aug 4 '18 at 12:05
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From my perspective, it is clear that the direct cause of the window breaking, is the hammer hitting it!
You are the indirect cause, regardless if you threw it intentionally or not.

  • That's precisely how I see it as well, but others would disagree. – user3776022 Aug 8 '18 at 14:46
  • However, from a legal point of view, you would be legally liable for the damages the hammer causes, even though you are the "indirect cause." – Guill Sep 2 '18 at 3:20

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