Causation and the Chicago Teachers Strike

The Chicago Teachers are striking for various reasons. I support them, and hope they win. It occurred to me — once again — that confusions about causation have muddied the debate here. And since I now apparently write about theories of causation often, why not do it again here.

The effect that we are trying to determine a cause for is “students are not going to school.” I find it fairly uncontroversial that, all things equal, this is a very bad effect. Going to school is good. Learning is good. Students should be in school. But now the million-dollar question: what is causing students to not be in school?

The problem with this question is that there is not a cause. At least two conditions must simultaneously occur for the effect of “students not going to school” to result.

  1. Rahm Emanuel wont give in to the union’s demands.
  2. The teacher union wont give in to Rahm’s demands.

There are two necessary causes. If you remove out either one of them, the effect of “students are not going to school” will not result. Now the question people want answered is who is to blame? That question is completely unanswerable outside of ideological and empirical considerations. It just is. There is no objective fact of the matter on who is to blame. If you believe, for whatever reason, that Rahm should give in to the union’s demands, then Rahm is clearly to blame. And the other way around if you believe the union should give into Rahm’s demands.

But there is no at-a-glance way to assign blame here. There are multiple necessary causes. The inability of people to realize this — not just in the present case but all the time — is the root of all sorts of unnecessary confusion and muddled discourse. It’s maddening to watch.