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Reasons, Causes & Political Unrest

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

Reasons, Causes and Political Unrest

“Might it not even be imagined that several people had carried out an intention without any one of them having it? In this way a government may have an intention that no man has.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein. Zettel: 48)


In the last few years, the world has experienced an upsurge in political unrest. This has been particularly noticeable in the Middle East and West; totalitarian regimes of various kinds (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria among them) have either fallen or become embroiled in wars with their own people, and democracies have begun to show a propensity for wanting radical change (most notably in the recent Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President).

There has been a good deal of speculation concerning the causes of such unrest and upheaval, much of it centred on the reasons people give for acting in this or that way. Many, for example, voted for Brexit on grounds of unease about immigration and the pressure that current levels put on public services; others voted for the UK to remain in the EU on grounds of friendship with our European neighbours. Some voted to leave because they believe the Common Agricultural Policy and how it is allied to the EU single market is an example of institutionalised racism because it prohibits countries with small economies which rely solely on perishable goods from trading on reasonable terms with Europe; others voted remain purely on grounds of economic welfare with no thoughts about friendship with their European neighbours and some voted different ways on the same grounds – for instance, that they believed their national identity was at risk.

It is not my intention here to comment on the various different reasons people had for voting the ways they did – rather, I just want to make three observations that will serve as a starting point for my discussion. The first is that in the cases of both the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump, people often ended up voting the same way for many different reasons – some of them overtly contradictory. The second is that there were well-informed and ill-informed voters on both sides, each of whom had their reasons for voting the way they did. The third is that there has been a good deal of hostility between those who take opposing views whether they be well-informed or ill-informed – much of it collapsing quickly into personal insults and, in some cases, violent confrontation.

In terms of the punditry and measures that governments and pressure groups are considering in order to address people’s concerns, each has tended to focus on examining the reasons that people have given for the ways in which they have felt compelled to behave and vote; the presupposition of such examinations being that the reasons people have given for their actions are the causes of these actions.

But should we take the reasons people provide to be the causes of their actions? Any claim that something is a cause is, firstly, a hypothesis and, secondly, invokes the idea of cause and effect. If I say that x caused y, I am expressing a hypothesis about a particular state of affairs. A hypothesis is a supposition or theory that, in principle at least, is subject to verification or falsification. Now, if I am going to specify something to be a cause of something else (x caused y, for instance) then I am making a hypothesis about which I can, in principle, be wrong. In terms of specifying something as a cause I am, by definition, forming a hypothesis; in other words, internal to the idea of something as a cause is that of hypothesis.

By contrast, something about which I cannot be wrong (about which it is impossible for me to be wrong) is not a hypothesis and, therefore, not something I can specify as a cause. If I say, “This is why I acted as I did”, my reasons cannot (logically) be the causes of my actions because I cannot, even in principle, be wrong about what my reasons are. They might be bad reasons or poorly thought through, but they are still my reasons and I cannot be mistaken about them being my reasons; because I cannot be wrong about them, they cannot be specified as a (or the) cause of my actions.

To make this clear, I will provide a further example - one developed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his book Philosophical Investigations, he remarks:

"The question whether the dreamer's memory deceives him when he reports the dream after waking cannot arise, unless indeed we introduce a completely new criterion for the report's 'agreeing' with the dream, a criterion which gives us a concept of 'truth' as distinct from 'truthfulness' here." (PI/PPF: 320)

The distinction between truth and truthfulness that Wittgenstein draws here is fundamental (see also PI: 258-271). Assuming sincerity, there is no way (even in principle) that the dreamer can be wrong concerning what he remembers dreaming about; whatever the dreamer remembers will be just that – what he remembers. One cannot ask the dreamer whether he might have misremembered, because there is nothing that would count as determining an independent truth in relation to what he remembers. Put another way: there is no possibility of anyone else being able to confirm or deny what the dreamer remembers.

Similarly, assuming the truthfulness of someone who says they acted for a particular reason, there is no way that they can be wrong about what their reasons are. Indeed, even if they were to try to deceive you and give different reasons to those that actually were their reasons (perhaps they were ashamed of their real reasons), then they could still not be wrong about their real reasons (or wrong about the reasons why they tried to deceive you).

Later, of course, they might change their mind about what their reasons were and replace them with new ones; but this would merely mean that how they now rationalise their past actions has changed – not that these new reasons were the real causes which were unknown at the time. Similarly, if our dreamer woke up one day and said he had misremembered what he dreamt about when he first described his dream, there is no way that anyone can say he is right or wrong about his new claim. Whatever he claims to be the case, in this respect, is the case; there is (logically) no possibility of error.

As such, we need to understand that someone who gives reasons (either old or new) for their actions is rationalising them in ways that are expressive of the orientation of their thoughts. For example, a person who cites religious reasons for executing people, is not citing causes of their behaviour any more than a person who cites religious reasons for their charitable works is citing causes of their behaviour; rather they are rationalising them (even if they, themselves, believe that their reasons are the causes of their actions). The orientation of each person’s thought is respectively that of a killer and a Samaritan, but one cannot cite the reasons that either gives as causes of that orientation. One can say something similar about the political reasons people give for their actions – they demonstrate a particular orientation of thought (a disposition to think a certain way) but their reasons are not the causes of that orientation. The orientation of their thought is expressed in the reasons that they provide for what they do, as opposed to be caused by them.

Nonetheless, it might be objected that reasons are sometimes obviously causes. For example, the reason that objects fall back to earth when thrown in the air is gravity – gravity it the cause of such a phenomenon (it is the reason it happens). However, in this kind of case, we are using the term reason in a way that is synonymous with cause; it is a legitimate hypothesis because there are, in principle, independent ways of verifying or falsifying it and a legitimate use of the term reason also. Both uses of the term reason have explanatory power, but only that which relates to a hypothesis can be understood as a cause.

A further objection might run as follows: suppose that the reason someone gives for being vegetarian is because they find it morally impossible to condone the killing of animals for human consumption. Now that meat can be grown in laboratories in ways that do not involve animals at all, they find it possible to eat meat. Surely, their reason for not eating meat was also the cause of them not eating meat, because now that meat can be grown independently of animals in laboratories, they find themselves able to eat it? In other words: their reason for not eating meat must be a cause because now it has gone they find themselves able to do so.

But it is not so. The person cannot be wrong about what their reason is for being vegetarian, neither can they be wrong about their reason for eating meat when it is grown in a laboratory. Accordingly, the two reasons show the person to be consistent but neither can (logically) be understood as causes, because neither is a hypothesis. Accordingly, one cannot identify either reason given as a possible cause. Only that which can, in principle, be truth-valued can logically be understood as a cause; given that this is not possible in relation to either of these reasons, they cannot be understood as potential causes of action.


Understanding that the reasons someone gives for their actions are not the causes of those actions has significant implications in terms of the ways in which we comprehend human behaviour. Firstly, it begs the question: if our reasons cannot (logically) be the causes of our actions, then what is? In the first instance, one might suggest that it is our dispositions – i.e. how we are, as animals, disposed to respond to others of the same kind, creatures of different species, and the world around us more generally. This seems like a plausible explanation, but achieves very little in terms of understanding to what our dispositions are answerable, and why they change on both individual and collective levels over time.

To be sure, the ways in which we are disposed to respond shapes what function as reasons for us; in other words, shapes how we rationalise how we think and what we think about how we think. But what causes us to unquestioningly take certain things as significant (i.e. significant in particular ways)? The philosopher Peter Winch pointed out that to justify specifying an object or property to be of a particular kind by appealing to other things it resembles makes no sense. To do such a thing merely shows that one has presupposed how one has decided to classify the object, and that is no justification at all. (cf. Winch, P. 1972. p.182)

In simple terms, when we see someone smile, we recognise that person as smiling; our recognition of them smiling is interdependent with what we understand them to be doing. We do not, in the first instance, infer (or interpret) a smile from the position of facial muscles or from how one face resembles another, since that begs the question: what would give us so much as the idea that someone was smiling in the first place? Rather, we learn, from recognising a smile, which facial muscles are involved in the act of smiling. Similarly, when we recognise a moral dilemma or the ethical dimensions of a piece of behaviour or political situation, our recognition of such moral and ethical dimensions are interdependent with our understanding of them as such.

This illustrates that we are naturally disposed to respond in certain ways – ways that Wittgenstein characterised as primitive reactions. These reactions provide the grounds for our learning and intellectual development – much of which has become (and, doubtless, continues to become) assimilated into our repertoire of natural responses. The development of an ability to recognise fine shades of human behaviour and, as such, develop a conceptual repertoire that is interdependent with it, is an example. But, of course, there are varying degrees and colours of sensitivity in relation to such behaviour – different people are more or less sensitive to different things, some are insensitive and so on.

Because such varying degrees are exemplified in virtually every human being, they are an integral part of how we understand each other; internal to this, is the fact that the views of people can change. The desire to persuade someone that they should adopt your views is part and parcel of our responses to the differences in sensitivity (of multifarious kinds) that exist between people, as are the means by which we try to persuade. Such means are generally attempts to get people to see things as you do; political arguments exemplify this. There are far simpler examples too: some people see malice in smiles more easily than others – they may express this and be judged as cynical by others who do not see malice so easily. Each may try to persuade the other; the more charitable party might point to the general behavioural patterns of the smiling person, the cynic may suggest that you can really never know what people are thinking. And so on.

A joke, novel, poem, or piece of music can become peculiar and offensive (note well that the latter is an evaluative moral term) or become accepted; or it might do each over a longer time period. D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover is an example of a novel in this regard. Some jokes that were acceptable 40 years ago now carry a possible criminal conviction if made in public (those which trade on mocking the physically or intellectually disabled, for instance). Similarly, there are forms of humour that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago but that have now become socially acceptable (take, as an example, the character of the humour in the TV series Little Britain). The ways in which our thinking has shifted in relation to these (and many other) things is an example of how the orientation of our thought has changed in terms of how we are disposed to respond to one another. Views that were, once upon a time, outlandish are now becoming acceptable; similarly, some things that were considered acceptable are now becoming outlandish. In both cases, the ways in which people seem disposed to resolve disputes over them is also changing. There is nothing that logically compels us to see things one way rather than another. If you cannot see the figures in the ambiguous drawing below, there is nothing I can do that will guarantee you see either one of them or both. All I can do is point to certain features and hope!

All of these aspects of life are interwoven with the kinds of reasons we supply to rationalise our actions and judgements. Like all other life forms, we continue to evolve and, with that, the ways in which we think and act (along with how we think about those things) will continue to evolve.

At the same time it is important to realise that the kinds of reasons we supply are also forms of behaviour that are the effects of particular causes; not everyone will supply the same reason for acting in the same way, but whether that means the causes are dissimilar is open to question. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the political sphere where, in the recent UK vote to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as the next US president, people gave a wide variety of reasons for voting the same ways. They also gave a variety of reasons to rationalise (and justify) their conduct during the campaigns and after the votes.

Again, nothing logically compels human beings to be violent towards one another just because each has different political or religious beliefs, even though it is doctrinal adherence that often provides the reasons given for it. Accordingly, the reasons that individuals give for participating in collective actions of people, cannot be the causes of an increase in global political unrest any more than the reasons that other individuals give for their collective (or individual) actions in response.

Nevertheless, there must be a cause (or causes) to which such unrest is accountable (that does compel us) and the political changes that characterise it. And it would also seem to be true that certain ways of thinking that have, in the recent past at least, obtained very little political traction are now beginning to do so – again, individuals might give (either similar or different) reasons for endorsing a particular political position or, in some cases, give reasons for changing their minds and coming to agree with it. Either way, it seems that how they are won over to that position is shifting, along with what they are disposed to think the ways in which they are persuaded.

Related to our political and moral spheres is how we conceive of human beings more generally; changes in political and moral thought, and the arguments that saturate political differences are part and parcel of how we conceive of one another. These are expressed in the many different reasons people provided for voting in the ways they did, both in the EU referendum and the US presidential elections (see 2nd paragraph for examples).

In politics, just as in other parts of our lives, views that were, once upon a time, outlandish are now becoming acceptable; similarly, some views that were considered laudable are now going dead on us. Likewise, the ways in which people conduct themselves politically is also changing - certain forms of traditionally accepted conduct are, apparently, waning in their efficacy; others are suddenly becoming successful and popular. Whether these are long term changes remains to be seen, but each is interdependent with our conceptions of one another.

One example of political conduct that is waning in popularity and efficacy, is what one might call reasoned conversation. By that I mean conversation in which parties (both political and individual) enter into it convinced of their own position but, nonetheless, possess open minds – minds committed to seeking a better understanding of the matters about which they are conversing through reasoned and critically aware discussion. This can be distinguished from counterfeit forms of conversation in which the sole aim is to persuade your interlocutor of the position you are promoting, regardless of the arguments they put to you. Inauthentic conversation often trades on rhetorical forms of speech, the manipulation of statistics (that might themselves be accurate) and so on. In the severest cases, such counterfeit conversations may barely resemble dialogue at all – political or religious speeches that appear to be nothing more than anger fuelled nonsensical rants, are two such examples.

There is nothing in the fabric of the universe, so to speak, that logically compels us to take seriously a conception of argument that is answerable to critical awareness and critical discussion; our predilection to do so is part of the evolved behaviour of Homo sapiens. Similarly, there is nothing in the fabric of the universe that logically compels us not to take reasoned conversation and argument seriously.

Obviously, there is typicality of behaviour which informs our sense of someone as politically authoritative. Someone with views and arguments that are taken by all but the smallest of minorities to be those of a crank, will not be taken seriously. However, this – like the acceptability of Lady Chatterly’s Lover – can change. A few years ago, the idea of Donald Trump as US president was politically unthinkable in the sense that it was is beyond the ability of people to take seriously. Similarly, until relatively recently, the idea that the unreasoned shouting of poorly justified opinion would be taken politically seriously was also unthinkable, as was the idea that well-reasoned argument would become progressively more sidelined (especially in academic departments (cf. Gaita, R. 2017 [sic]. p.xx)).

In relation to this, we are now witnessing hatred of religion and the rise of religious hatred, and we are witnessing the rise of a more confrontational, less well-reasoned form of politics; implicitly and explicitly, religion and politics are intertwined.

That our behaviour has causes seems beyond doubt, but the reasons people give for their behaviour are not its causes. Accordingly, the common practice of citing the reasons people give for their actions as the causes of those actions is misguided. So what are the causes? If we do not know, where should we start looking?

What are the causes of our behaviour?

In the first instance, a reason which a person gives for an action (something that is not a cause of their action) can be the cause of someone else changing the way they think. The giving of a reason is, after all, a physical event in the world, and this may cause particular changes in neurological patterns in the brain, just as the eating of certain food types or the ingesting of certain drugs (in one way or another) cause changes in such patterns. This is, after all, how reasons that one person gives can persuade another person to act in a particular way. But insofar as the giving of reasons can be the cause of someone else’s actions, it is important to note that they will, generally, only act as causes that give rise to currently accepted (or acceptable) behaviour within a particular culture (characterised by a web of interacting responses to which that culture consents). Where such responses are anomalous, a different kind of cause would seem to be at work – for example, the anomalous responder is diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The determining of causes is ultimately a scientific (and empirical) concern. Already, causes of certain forms of anomalous behaviour have been identified but, on the whole, they have been treated in relative isolation.

Poor diet in children – particularly the ingesting of certain kinds of artificial colouring and preservative – has shown to cause such behaviour. Likewise, drugs such as Ritalin are designed to alter the composition of chemicals in the brain that are understood as being responsible for hyperactivity and impulse control. In both cases, it is possible to hypothesise and identify causes of behaviour. And, of course, when a person is behaving in ways caused by ingesting a particular substance, they will still provide reasons which rationalise or justify their actions (also a form of behaviour). Changes in their behaviour will be similarly justified. But should the focus of such dietary causes be largely focussed on children? Surely, if diet can affect the machinations of children’s brains, it can also affect the brains of adults (perhaps just differently)? Diet has, after all, played a substantial role in the development and evolution of our species, so the thought that individual and collective changes in our thinking might be answerable to it is not pie in the sky.

I am not suggesting that causes of our behaviour changing are definitely dietary or that religious and political unrest are answerable to what we are eating; that said, it is not without the bounds of possibility that changing diets are a contributing factor. The causes might be manifold – changes in the composition of the air we breathe caused by pollution, changes in the ways human beings are physically evolving (which may or may not be intertwined with changes in atmospheric composition and diet) and so on. Whatever the case, it might be useful to begin looking for causes in relation to the kinds of changes we are seeing concerning the fundamentalist (and apparently psychopathic) tendencies of large groups of people loyal to ISIS and the kind of lack of reason that is internal to the rapid rise of confrontational politics.

Final Thoughts

If we do begin to unravel and understand such causes, what then? Assuming that we are able to do something about them, should we? Would it be ethical to remove the causes that give rise to kinds of behaviour that see their outlet in religious fundamentalism and far-right and far-left confrontational politics?

There are two initial points to be raised in terms of these questions.

The first is that just as we have evolved to develop the internal combustion engine and sophisticated systems of ethics, so we have evolved to form political unions and engage in political disputes; the behaviour internal to each of these, whether it be reasoned, or irrationally confrontational, is also an evolved characteristic (as is whether we understand behaviour to be reasoned or irrationally confrontational). Consequently, any measures that might be taken to limit the development of certain forms of behaviour, through identifying and neutralising their causes, are also forms of evolved behaviour. It is, perhaps, then a question of who decides those limits. Nevertheless, whoever makes such decisions will not necessarily occupy the position that is the evolutionarily advantageous one; indeed, it might be quite the opposite. In any case, how is anyone to know whether religious convictions or political movements of particular kinds are more or less advantageous than those which oppose them? In the end, only a study that is able to look back on the development of the animal Homo sapiens – its rise and decline as a species – will be able to make that judgement.

The second is that, having identified such causes, any decision made about which forms of behaviour should be moderated will be justified in terms of reasons. But, as we have seen, such justification (or rationalisation) of one’s actions is not the cause of those actions; rather, the provision of such reasons is merely expressive of the cognitive orientation (or disposition) of the way people are disposed to think. This, as I have illustrated, is answerable to certain causes that exist independently of the reasons each of us provides, and is just as much of our evolution story (and that of the earth more generally) as everything else. Put another way: the giving of reasons is just as much a form of behaviour as the behaviour that such reasons are intended to justify. The reasons that each of us gives for our actions are not the causes of those actions and, therefore, only determine the direction of our cognitive evolution (and orientation) insofar as they act as causes in relation to the behaviour of others (which is quite possible). If others cite the reasons you give as justification for them responding (behaving) in certain ways (something that characterises political and moral discourse), then the reasons they give for the nature of their response are, similarly, not the causes of their actions.

Certainly, it is not the case that the development of sophisticated systems of ethics has come about from the desire for social cooperation, as many seem to believe. Some forms of social cooperation are ethically acceptable (e.g. certain kinds of political union); others are not (e.g. social cooperation amongst thieves) and what is acceptable can change. Social cooperation, therefore, seems to occur independently of how we conceive of it ethically. If such cooperation is an evolved survival strategy, then its occurrence is independent of the ethical reasons we might provide to justify such forms of cooperation – the development of political movements and their oppositions being among them.


Gaita, R. The Philosopher’s Dog. Routledge Classics. London. 2017 [sic – actually published 2016]

Winch. P. Moral Integrity in Ethics and Action – Studies in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. London. 1972.

Wittgenstein. L. [‘PI’] Philosophical Investigations. 1953. Wiley-Blackwell. Fourth edition. Oxford. 2009.

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