Causal reasoning

Reasoning from cause is very common and we are all familiar with it, if only in a common-sense way. If someone asks you 'Why did you buy this book?', you might reply 'because it was reasonably cheap and looked interesting'; alternatively you might say 'because someone recommended that I buy it' or even 'because it was a compulsory textbook for my studies'. In all cases, you have stated what event or fact caused you to buy this book. Hence, in a causal relationship between claims, the premise or premises state the cause, and the conclusion states the effect resulting from that cause.

Now, very often we use a simple causal claim, such as 'Australia's economic weakness in the world economy is caused by its reliance on commodity exports'. As we know, a claim does have an internal connection between the cause and the effect. We should be careful to remember that a single claim, such as the one just given, is not an argument or explanation. However, this claim does imply that it is the result of (or conclusion to) causal reasoning. So, in making good links between premises and conclusions, where we are reasoning about cause and effect, we need to spell out what that relationship is. For example:

Australia is reliant on commodity exports; such exports are always at risk of natural disasters and price fluctuations; these risks lead to weakness, and hence, Australia has a weak economy in global terms.

When we are attempting to link claims in order to express a causal relationship, there are two general rules that are particularly useful. First of all, we can look for the factor that is the only difference between two given situations. For example:

Before recent changes to industrial relations laws, labour unions could not be excluded by employers from most wage negotiations; now they can be. Not much else has changed, however. Since this legislative change took place, average wages have declined dramatically. Hence, I conclude that the likely cause of this reduction in wages has been the exclusion of unions from wage negotiations.

The two situations that are being compared are the higher level of average wages in the past and the lower level of average wages now. The argument in the example seeks to establish that the only differing factor in these two situations, which might explain the change in wage levels, is the exclusion of unions. We can express this rule thus:

X is the cause of Y because the only relevant difference between Y happening and not happening is that X was only present when Y happened.

The second general rule for determining causal relationships requires us to look for the only similarity or common element in two or more situations. Take the following argument as an example:

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