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Jones and Wilson have both been sacked by the company that used to employ them. Jones, a middle-aged male cleaner, was a poor worker with a history of arriving late; Wilson, a young woman working as a filing clerk, had always been judged by her boss to be a competent worker. But both Jones and Wilson had just been elected union delegates, and thus, I would reasonably conclude that it was their active participation in the union that led to their dismissal.

The differences between the two workers contrast with their similar treatment (both were sacked); so, the only other similarity between them (that they were union delegates) seems to be the likely cause of their dismissal. We can express this rule thus:

X is the cause of Y because it is the only relevant similarity between two separate occurrences of Y happening.

The other key aspect to causal reasoning is to appreciate that some causal events are necessary, and others are sufficient. If I assert that oxygen is necessary for a fire to occur, I am not saying that oxygen causes fires. Thus the presence of oxygen is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. However, while a lighted match is sufficient to set fire to a pile of dry paper if dropped on it, it is not necessary — I could also use a flamethrower or focus the heat of the sun with a magnifying glass.

In the many complex causal situations that we encounter, it will be impossible to isolate the only relevant difference or the only relevant similarity. We will also struggle to determine necessary and sufficient causes because we cannot (normally) conduct repeated experiments in which we determine the relative state of each causal element. Rather, we will normally be confronted by a whole jumble of possible differences and similarities. So, the main function of our investigation of causes, and of the resulting causal arguments and explanations we write, will be to assign some significance to each cause (was it a minor or major cause? was it significant enough to count as a sufficient cause on its own?) or to discover the interrelationship between causes. We also need to consider the degree to which each cause was beyond or within human control (was the cause a direct human action, or something in the general environment?). Further, we need to avoid assuming, simply because events happen in close proximity to one another, that they are necessarily related as cause and effect. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence that, for example, the two workers were sacked. Alternatively, we might argue, in relation to the first example, that there is a common cause: wage reductions and union exclusion are not necessarily effect and cause but, rather, could both be the effects of some other cause—perhaps structural changes in the political economy of Australia.

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