Reasons, Causes and Political Unrest: A Natural History

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

Abstract: In recent years, the world has witnessed an increase in political and religious unrest, both in totalitarian and democratic regimes. By drawing on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Peter Winch, Raimond Gaita and Severin Schroeder, this paper argues that attempts to understand the causes of such unrest should focus on outside factors that can be hypothesized as the external causes of such behaviour, as opposed to the reasons individuals offer for their actions. Within this argument, the case is made that we should concentrate more on providing a descriptive natural history of human behaviour if we wish to understand the causes of political and religious unrest; in making this case, I highlight that it is our general tendency to take as causes the reasons supplied by an individual for their actions, that nurtures the belief that there is a significant difference between the problem of explaining political behaviour (in its various forms), and the problem of explaining animal behaviour. And I argue that the explanatory power of the reasons we give for our actions lies, not in causal explanation as we tend to believe, but rather in the further dimension of intelligibility that our linguistic behaviour adds to our non-linguistic behaviour (this is a feature of our cognitive development).


“The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein TLP 6.43)

“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 the 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 gave 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 supplied 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. For all of these forms of human behaviour, the individuals who perpetrate them cite particular reasons as justification (and rationalisation) for what they do.

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 those actions.

But should we take the reasons people provide to be the causes of their actions?

Scope, Structure & Argument

In this paper I will argue that the reasons we give to justify our actions are not the causes of those actions but, rather, expressive of our dispositions to act in certain ways much as our non-linguistic behaviour is expressive of our dispositions to act in certain ways. Reason-giving is a form of meaningful human behaviour in much the same way as non-linguistic gesticulating is a form of meaningful human behaviour. There is, in this respect, an internal relationship between our non-linguistic and linguistic behaviour of a kind that binds our non-linguistic behaviour to the intelligibility of the reasons that we offer as justification for it. In other words, I suggest that reason-giving is a form of activity that adds a further dimension of intelligibility to our non-linguistic actions and is, itself, intelligible by virtue of this relationship – it is in this sense that reason-giving has explanatory power, not in causal terms.

I will then argue, that our ever evolving non-linguistic repertoire of unquestioning natural responses (sometimes referred to as primitive reactions) provides the grammatical foundations of our concepts along with the possibility of changes in their application, redundancy and innovation, which we use when we give reasons for our actions and in our critical assessment of others. In other words, the interaction between our primitive reactions (how others respond to both our non-linguistic and linguistic behaviour) conditions our moral and political conceptual landscapes (among our many others).

Finally I argue that since reason giving is a form of behaviour that is internally related to our non-linguistic practices, it is something distinctively human – a form of behaviour that is unique to Homo sapiens – that, while providing further shades of sophistication in relation to our non-linguistic behaviour, would be unintelligible if viewed from the outside in the way that we view the activities of other animals, because it would be viewed in the same way as our non-linguistic behaviour.

Overall, my aim is to show that the problem of explaining the actions of terrorists, the rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are not as dissimilar to the problem of explaining animal behaviour as we tend to believe – such a belief, as I will show, is largely (but not wholly) attributable to the presupposition that the reasons we cite as justifications for our actions are their causes. We are, in the end, just another species going about its business on the planet; the ways in which we vote and behave politically are forms of behaviour that show how we are disposed to act towards one another and that is interdependent with how we conceive of one another (and the objects with which we interact more generally). Accordingly, I argue, the reasons that individuals give for their actions are expressive of their dispositions.

The later part of this paper will centre on two examples of human action which, to an outsider, will look the same, but for which the reasons given seem to indicate two very different causes (and have frequently been taken to be causal), and four zoological examples in which the causes of behaviour have been uncontroversially attributed to hormones, instinct, evolved behaviour and so on.

Why Reasons Are Not Causes

In his influential paper ‘Reasons and Causes’, Donald Davidson argues that the reasons that we give for our actions can legitimately be cited as causes of our actions (although he does not maintain that they are the sole causes of our actions). For the sake of brevity and because I want to pursue a different direction, it is not my intention to provide a detailed exegesis or criticism of Davidson’s position but to draw on it where necessary, alongside Severin Schroeder’s excellent critique of it – ‘Are Reasons Causes? A Wittgensteinian Response to Davidson.’ (Schroeder, S. (2001) ‘Are reasons causes?’ in Schroeder, S. (ed.) Wittgenstein and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 150-170)

Schroeder’s criticism of Davidson is systematic and comprehensive. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that the following objection provided by Wittgenstein in the Blue and Brown Books (BBK p.15) and employed by Schroeder in his criticism, is sufficient on its own to falsify Davidson’s position. (Schroeder provides a number of substantial criticisms of Davidson’s position but for my purposes, I am going to concentrate on just one, as the others are not directly relevant to my discussion.)

The way I discuss it in the following paragraphs is a little different from Schroeder’s treatment of it, largely because I need to bring out points that relate to later aspects of my discussion.

Any claim that something is a cause is, firstly, a hypothesis and, secondly, invokes the principle of cause and effect. If I say that x caused y, I am expressing a hypothesis about a particular state of affairs. An 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, at least in principle, be wrong. By contrast, something about which I cannot, in principle, be right or wrong is not a hypothesis and, therefore, cannot be something I can specify as a cause. Bear in mind that in order to be shown to be right, the possibility must exist that I can be wrong also.

Thus 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 hypothesis or (as such) the cause of my actions.

This point is made in the following way by 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 ii: p.189)

The distinction between truth and sincerity (truthfulness) that Wittgenstein draws here is fundamental. 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 check in relation to what he claims to remember. Put another way: there is no possibility of anyone else being able to confirm or deny what the dreamer remembers; whatever the dreamer remembers will be right and this just means that there is no possibility of error. The dreamer may be truthful (sincere) but there is no sense in which one can establish the truth of his claim.

Similarly, assuming the sincerity of someone who says they acted for particular reasons, 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 from 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, for that matter, 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 reasons, 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. And, although it might be objected that a person can be wrong about the reason upon which they think they are acting – for example, I might think that I am acting justly in disciplining my subordinate when I am, in fact, acting from jealousy – it is still the case that I cannot be wrong about why I think I am acting (what I believe my reasons are for acting), even if others take my (sincere) behaviour to be expressive of jealousy. Indeed, it may be that, in subsequent times, I also come to see my actions as persecution born from jealousy; however, if I come to see things this way, it is not because I was mistaken about what my reasons were any more than the dreamer who later claims to have misremembered a dream. Rather, it is because I now make sense of my actions in a different way.

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 (what one might term a disposition or, in Davidson’s terms a pro-attitude). For example, a person who cites religious or political reasons for executing people, is not citing causes of their behaviour any more than a person who cites religious or political reasons for their charitable works; rather they are rationalising them (even if they, themselves, believe that their reasons are the behind the ways in which they act). The orientation of each person’s thought is respectively that of a killer and that of a Samaritan, but one cannot cite the reasons that either provides as causes of that orientation; their reasons are not the causes of that orientation anymore than the dispositions of which they are expressive are causes of it (I will make clear why presently).

Two Initial Objections

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. Both uses of the term reason have explanatory power, but only that which relates to an hypothesis can be understood as a cause.

A second 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 no longer exists, 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 be understood as causes, because neither is an hypothesis. Accordingly, one cannot identify either reason given as a possible cause. Only that which can, in principle, be truth-valued (independently of the subject) 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.

A Further Substantial Objection

A more substantial objection runs as follows, and it is my reply to it that forms the central aspect of this paper.

Even if I cannot be wrong about the reasons that I give for my actions and, as such, cannot claim them to be the causes of those actions, others – such as Davidson – can still claim my reasons to be the causes of my actions; they can correlate my given reasons with my actions and form a legitimate hypothesis. For example, if under similar circumstances I give the same or similar reasons for acting in the same or similar ways, others may make a link between my reasons and my actions, and form the hypothesis that such reasons are the causes of my actions. Similarly, the consistency with which suicide bombers and terrorists who use vans and knives cite religious reasons as justification for their actions, allows third parties to form a hypothesis that the reasons the perpetrators provide for their actions are the causes of those actions.

This objection fails because the reasons we give for our actions (alongside those dimensions of our non-linguistic behaviour for which the reasons seem obvious) are the criteria for saying that we are of a certain disposition; but, as will become clear in a moment, dispositions are no more the causes of actions than the reasons (and behaviour) which express them. Indeed, the criteria for saying someone is of a certain disposition are, in part at least, the reasons an individual offers as justification for their actions. This is because reason-giving is just as much an aspect of human behaviour as the non-linguistic behaviour for which it is offered as justification. Moreover, a piece of behaviour is not self-causing – my act of pointing, for example, is not the cause of my act of pointing but, rather, a criterion for others to say that I am pointing. Similarly, my acts of reason-giving are not the causes of my dispositions but, rather, expressive of them (as is behaviour that is not reason giving).

Consequently, while third parties can form a genuine hypothesis that the reasons others give for their actions are the causes of those actions, because an individual’s given reasons are only expressive of their disposition (as opposed to the other way round), it follows that such a hypothesis is false. Put another way: It cannot be the case that the very behaviour which is a criterion for saying that we have dispositions is, itself, the cause of those dispositions; if that were the case then both our reason-giving and non-linguistic behaviour would be ontologically prior to our dispositions. The very concept of “disposition” is, thus, established in our behaviour, of which a part is giving reasons which justify our actions. Consequently, the reasons that we give as justification for our actions cannot be the cause(s) of those actions on two main grounds: 1. That we, as individuals, cannot be wrong about what our reasons are, which means we cannot form the hypothesis that our own reasons are the causes of our actions. 2. That because the reasons we give for our actions are criterially related to the concept of disposition and its applications, they are not ontologically prior to its existence (the idea that one’s reasons are expressed by one’s disposition makes no sense); as such, any third party hypothesis that an individual’s reasons are the causes of their actions, is false.

To make this objection (and my answer to it) clear, and as a starting point for the next phase of my discussion, consider the following (true) example.

On June 3rd 2017, Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge, launched a knife attack and killed eight people; they were heard to shout "This is for Allah." On the 24th April 2018, Alek Minassian drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto, killing ten people. Those who carried out the attack on London Bridge did so for religious reasons; the reasons Alek Minassian offered were centred on misogyny and his self-identification as an “involuntary celibate.”

Ultimately, there is an internal relation between our non-linguistic behaviour and the reasons we supply as justification for it – were reason-giving to come apart from the non-linguistic behaviour it is intended to justify, then reason-giving would be both pointless and unintelligible (for there would be nothing to which it was related).

As Schroeder remarks:

[H]aving punched someone on the nose, I wouldn’t get away with saying that I did it to make him feel better...Asking a person to give a reason for his behaviour we challenge him to justify it; to tell us (if he can) why it wasn’t a bad thing...Thus our interests shape our concept of a reason, and take it, at least in some of its applications, a considerable way from questions of the causation of events... (Schroeder, S. 2001. p.164)

This is further supported by a remark made by Ludwig Wittgenstein:

[We] should like to explain the understanding of a gesture as a translation into words, and the understanding of words as a translation into gestures. And indeed we really do explain words by a gesture, and a gesture by words. (Zettel: 227)

Accordingly, the hypothesis that the reasons the attackers gave for their actions were the causes of their actions can be shown to be false, as can any hypothesis that suggests an individual’s given reasons are the causes of their actions.

Nevertheless, the reasons that the perpetrators gave apparently determined our responses to them; the media unquestioningly reached for the term terrorist to describe each of the London Bridge attackers but they were less (if at all) sure of ascribing the same predicate to Alek Minassian; this disparity in response is, itself, expressive of a general tendency to understand the reasons given by individuals as causes of their actions (just consider for a moment the strategies we use to combat terrorism of this kind and those used in relation to someone such as Alek Minassian). I will return to these points later. However, it also shows that the reasons people give for their actions can function as causes of the actions of others.

Reasons, Causes and Natural History

What is of immediate interest about these two cases is that to outsiders with no understanding of our human forms of life, the two incidents would appear almost identical; whilst identical effects need not have identical causes, there is an important dimension to these circumstances that may be beyond the ability of such outsiders to understand.

Consider the following example:

Imagine a visitor from another planet came to earth in order to make a study of its life forms. Such a visitor would, presumably, document plants and animals, and, of the latter, describe their habits, living conditions and general behaviour (in ways that it is possible for them to do so – this is important). They would have no reason to treat human beings as in any way exceptional in relation to this procedure; they might, of course, describe the complexity of our behaviour in relation to other life forms but because they cannot speak our language and do not participate in our forms of life, they will not understand that we give reasons for our actions. Assuming they can, the visitor will hear our verbal behaviour and, perhaps, infer signals and communication in much the same way as we do in relation to other animals whose habits we document in scientific research and on television programmes such as those made by Sir David Attenborough. And, just as we do in relation to other animals, they will develop hypotheses about the causes of the actions of animal life on earth; that will include Homo sapiens, but these hypotheses will not include the reasons we give for our actions and our visitor will have no more reason to believe that human beings justify their actions with reasons than we (as human beings) do in relation to other animals.

Thus, it is similarly possible that with sufficient observation, the visitor from another planet will develop a definite hypothesis that Homo sapiens has a natural disposition to care for certain animals, and be hostile or ambivalent towards others. Homo sapiens will also be observed to care for some of its own kind and kill and maim others (much like other animals in relation to members of their own species). Our visitor may also observe that Homo sapiens develops strategies, uses tools and invents, in order to carry out this behaviour more efficiently. This is part of the natural history of Homo sapiens as much as it is of the species that benefit or suffer as a result of our actions. The visitor may speculate about the causes of these modes of behaviour.

To our visitor from another planet, the two van attacks would look more or less identical – even in terms of context, they would not look relevantly different. The only substantial difference being the reasons each of the perpetrators offered for their actions and these (as I shall demonstrate presently) may be beyond the scope of the visitor to identify unless they are able to live human forms of life. Such an inability is contingent and not a logical impossibility; however, in the end, even if they could fully participate in human forms of life, they would realise that the giving of reasons to justify our non-linguistic actions is, itself, a form of behaviour (the intelligibility of which relies on an internal relation between the two). Accordingly, they would understand that the reason-giving is no more a cause of their behaviour than the non-linguistic behaviour it is intended to justify. But, of course, it is more likely that such a visitor would grasp our behaviour in ways akin to those in which we make sense of the noises of other animals in relation to their observed behaviour.

Consider the following zoological examples.

1. A cat which nurtures newly hatched ducklings along with her own young (this has been documented as occurring).

2. The Robin which places its young in different locations after they have left the nest (this is normal behaviour for Robins).

3. The Fox which will enter a chicken coop and kill a chicken in order to eat it then slaughter the remaining birds, apparently to no end.

In each of these cases, we describe the animals as having certain dispositions based on their behaviour; this allows us to talk about exceptional cases such as that of the cat which nursed the ducklings. We also hypothesise the causes of their behaviour in various terms. For example, the normal disposition of cats is to chase and eat mice and ducklings; however, in this exceptional case (by sheer coincidence), the ducklings appeared on the scene around the same time as the cat gave birth to kittens; it is believed the high level of mothering hormones in her system ensured that she mothered whatever small creature was in the vicinity – had the ducklings appeared at a different time, they would almost certainly have been eaten. The normal disposition of Robins is to distribute its fledged young in different locations to reduce the risk of the whole brood being predated; we hypothesise that this is a developed evolutionary strategy based on the laws of probability, but something of which the Robin is not consciously aware. We take the Robin’s behaviour to be grounded in instinct, not a consciously made decision. The behaviour of foxes in chicken coops is frequently explained in terms of panicked chickens triggering their predatory drives (rather as movement can trigger a light sensor); foxes are evolved to react to particular kinds of stimuli of this kind. Whatever the merits of such explanations (to me they often seem somewhat arbitrary with some conceptual confusion thrown in for good measure), it is clear that each animal is disposed to act in certain ways and that the criteria for establishing the nature of their dispositions lie in their behaviour (these are also the criteria for saying that certain individual animals are exceptional).

Now imagine, for a moment, that these three species of animal can speak and that we ask them to justify their actions with reasons.

The cat may claim to love the ducklings or to have seen creatures in need and acted for those reasons (in much the same kinds of ways as we often do). In the Robin’s mind, it may have acted for reasons that are nothing to do with probability (perhaps it believed its freshly fledged young add aesthetic value to their surroundings when placed in specific locations) and the Fox may enjoy blood sports.

In each of these cases, human beings can be observed to act in similar ways: we care for our young and, on occasion, different species and their young; we also kill other species in order to eat them and sometimes for fun (something that we frequently conceive of as sport), and we place things (sometimes animals and our own young) in particular locations for aesthetic reasons. These are behavioural dispositions that we have in common with other animals and are part of our natural history. But, as Schroeder points out, dispositions are not causes either; it is our dispositions that have causes. The start of a disposition – something that may begin at a point in one’s life such as a disposition to melancholy or nostalgia – is not the cause of that disposition (dispositions are not self-caused any more than behaviour is self-caused). Similarly, the start of our use of language along with the possibility of reason-giving which such use makes possible, are forms of behaviour that, in one way or another, are expressive of the dispositions of Homo sapiens (and the development of such dispositions). In other words, Homo sapiens has developed forms of behaviour that are the criteria for saying (of ourselves) that we are language-using, reason-giving creatures. It is this observation that falsifies the hypothesis that the reasons others give for their actions are the causes of their actions. In the light of Schroeder’s remarks, it is also important to observe that dispositions can change (this point is important and I will return to it shortly).

Human Beings, The Natural World, Dispositions & Concepts

We cannot understand the noises of other creatures in the terms that we do our own, and we assume for this (good) reason that other higher order animals do not provide reasons for their actions. The intelligibility of the lives of other species is limited by the extent to which their lives are similar to ours. Put another way: any thoughts about other animals giving reasons for their actions are excluded by the rules governing the concepts that we have at our disposal with which to describe them; the application of the concept of language in relation to a lion’s roars is not available (or, rather, it is available only in an idle and speculative sense). The grammatical foundations of our concepts are, ultimately, rooted in the ways in which we are disposed to respond to others and the world more generally; and this is answerable to the significance that our environment and its contents (both living and inanimate) has for us. Indeed, our dispositions are expressed in what it is that we find significant. We do not conceive of other animals using language because their behaviours and forms of life do not admit of the particular kinds of significance necessary for such a concept to get a grip; consequently, it makes no sense to think of cats, robins and foxes speaking and, thus, no sense to think of them providing reasons for their actions.

Thus, it should be clear that our dispositions are expressed in both our linguistic and non-linguistic behaviour, and that our interacting responses to one another (and the world more generally), through which such dispositions are made manifest, condition the concepts that we use in our assessments and reasoning about others and, as such, the conceptual landscape in which we find ourselves operating. Indeed, ‘our interests shape our concept of a reason, and take it, at least in some of its applications, a considerable way from questions of the causation of events...’ (Schroeder, S. 2001. p. 168)

It is important to acknowledge that human beings possess both general and individual dispositions. Loosely speaking, general dispositions can be understood as universal behavioural characteristics of Homo sapiens – that we form competing groups, develop societal norms and so on; individual dispositions can be understood in terms of how individual members of the species Homo sapiens act – an individual might be bad tempered or given to melancholy, for example (just as we think of the general dispositions of felines and, on occasion, exceptional individual dispositions such as a particular feline nurturing some ducklings; some cats and dogs are bad tempered, others are placid and so on).

Political and Social Change

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. 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. Our dispositions in terms of how we interact with one another on both individual and collective levels are changing. In the not too distant past, little was thought of laughing at the intellectually disabled (often derogatorily referred to as spastics) in ways we now reserve for clumsy animals; now that is unthinkable. Similarly, in ancient times, it was inconceivable that owning slaves was morally horrendous; indeed, owning a slave or two in ancient Rome was no more of a moral issue than owning a television set is today. These changes are obviously interdependent with how we conceive of our subject matter (in this case, other human beings). Similarly, a few years ago, the idea of Donald Trump as US president was politically unthinkable in the sense that it was beyond the ability of people to take seriously. And, until relatively recently, the idea that the unreasoned shouting of poorly justified (or wholly unjustified) opinion would be taken politically seriously was also unthinkable, as was the idea that well-reasoned argument would become progressively more sidelined.

Thus, we can see a relationship between our dispositions, the ways in which we react and how we conceive of our subject matter (whether that be people, animals or situation; frequently, how we conceive of each will depend on how we conceive of the others).

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. It seems the way they are won over to that position is shifting, along with what they are disposed to think and the ways in which they are (or can be) persuaded.

In relation to this, we are now witnessing hatred of religion and the rise of religious hatred, and the rise of a more confrontational, less well-reasoned form of politics; implicitly and explicitly in this respect and others, religion and politics are intertwined. – But the hostility that is increasing between peoples and individuals is dispositional and, in this sense, is unrelated to either political or religious commitments. These commitments merely serve as a way of making sense of our non-linguistic behaviour; Samaritans and suicide bombers both justify their action on grounds of religious commitments. Similarly, non-religious reasons are given by those who show goodness to wonder at, and those who commit the most terrible wrongs.

Nevertheless, there must be a cause (or causes) to which such unrest is accountable and the political changes that characterise it.

What Are The Causes Of Our Behaviour?

The identification of causes is ultimately a scientific (and empirical) concern, not a philosophical one; as Schroeder remarks, ‘it is important not to confuse a disposition with its underlying material basis.’ (Schroeder, S. 2001. p.159)

Such a material basis is something that science is able to establish. We have, already, established the causes of certain forms of anomalous behaviour but, on the whole, they have been treated in relative isolation; and there is an important distinction yet to be made properly between the causes of our dispositions and the causes of our behaviour.

A reason which a person gives for an action can be the cause of someone else changing the way they think but, of course, it can also be the cause of their behaviour in ways that reveal their dispositions to be much the same as they were prior to them hearing such reasons. The giving of a reason is, after all, a physical event in the world (in much the same way as a non-linguistic form of behaviour), 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.

Poor diet in children – particularly the ingesting of certain kinds of artificial colouring and preservative – has been shown to cause changes in 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 (perhaps illegal) substance, they will still provide reasons which rationalise or justify their actions (also a form of behaviour) no matter how strange they might appear to us. But why should the main focus of such dietary causes remain focussed on children, as they seem to be at present? 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 the ways we are disposed to think might be answerable to it (at least in some way) is not pie in the sky. And we also know that – along with brain injuries and conditions such as diabetes – certain substances do bring about changes in the ways human beings are disposed to respond to their environment.

Of course, the material causes of our dispositions are almost certainly manifold – changes in the composition of the air we breathe caused by pollution, the ingestion of micro-plastics, 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, are all hypotheses up for grabs. Whatever the case, it might be useful to start 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 terrorist groups and the kind of lack of reason that is internal to the rapid rise of confrontational politics, rather than uncritically supposing that it is the reasons they offer as justification for their actions which are the causes.

If we do 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? I will leave these questions for you to think about, save for remarking that 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 (which, itself characterises and is constitutive of our political landscapes), 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.

Conclusion and Final Remarks

I hope to have shown decisively that the reasons we give for our actions are not the causes of those actions, but among the criteria we have at our disposal to identify dispositions; that our dispositions have causes is beyond doubt, but the criteria for their recognition are not their cause. I have argued that the criteria for the recognition of dispositions is both non-linguistic and linguistic; in the case of linguistic criteria, much is centred around the reasons we offer as justification for our actions and, in this respect, I have followed Schroeder’s observation that an internal relation needs to exist between the reasons we provide and the behaviour they justify – for otherwise they would lack intelligibility as reasons at all (and there would be no sense in reason-giving either; the very concept would make no sense). In parallel, I drew attention to the fact that it is our primitive and unquestioning responsiveness to others and the world more generally, that provides the grammatical foundations of the concepts that we employ to critically assess and describe the actions of others alongside the possibility of giving reasons for our actions; such primitive and unquestioning behaviour can be characterised as how Homo sapiens is disposed to respond, in much the same way as we characterise the dispositions of other animals. Thus, the dispositions of Homo sapiens are interdependent with the recognition of them as a language-using species, and also the basis upon which other animals are excluded from this class.

Accordingly, our dispositions give rise to the development and understanding of moral and political concepts, and the reason-giving behaviour that employs such concepts; this reveals general dispositions that are characteristic of our species (in addition to individual dispositions such as friendliness or hostility towards others and selfishness and altruism). With this in mind, it is possible to appreciate that, provided they make sense in relation to the non-linguistic behaviour for which they are offered as justification, conflicting reasons can express the same disposition if they are used to justify the same non-linguistic behaviour. Contrariwise, two people can use the same reasons to justify behaviour that is obviously in conflict (for example those who voted opposite ways in the Brexit referendum because they believed their national identity was at risk). Provided there is an intelligible relationship between the ways in which one acts and the reasons one gives for doing so, our behaviour will make sense to others. Of course, in argument, the reasons we give for our actions can be the cause of a change of mind in our interlocutor and, depending on the circumstances, possibly a change of disposition also; in this way (among others), the reasons we give for our actions can act as causes in relation to the behaviour of others.

To a large extent however, the material causes of changes in our dispositions have been ignored and, consequently, remain unknown. Our tendency to understand the reasons given by individuals as causes of their actions (this itself is a disposition) means that we respond differently to the same actions; we think of the London Bridge attackers as religious zealots but tend to consider the actions of Alek Minassian as symptomatic of mental illness. So, while the disclosure of reasons to one another in relation to our non-linguistic behaviour allows us to either make sense of behaviour or not, reasons alone cannot be used as criteria for making a claim about a person’s disposition beyond observation of their behaviour as a whole. Some reasons for gratuitous killing will be intelligible; others will not, but a person’s disposition as a killer will be clear in both cases.

I would suggest that if you accept the remarks I have made about reasons and causes, the problem of explaining the behaviours of the London and Toronto attackers, and general shifts in moral and political landscapes (wherever they may be and whatever form they may take) is not as dissimilar to the problem of explaining the behaviour of other animals, as we tend to believe. It is, as I have discussed, our tendency to think about reasons as causes that has given rise to the way we characteristically draw the often sharp distinction between how we explain the behaviour of other animals and how we explain our own.

We can, therefore, view political and religious unrest and the reasons offered for it, as just another facet in the natural history of the behaviour of Homo sapiens and about which the causes are not yet understood. Ultimately, if we want to learn more about the causes of people’s behaviour and more general changes in their dispositions, we need to focus less on the reasons people give for their actions and more upon the material causes of their dispositions which, in turn, establish how we respond to the kinds of reasons others give to justify their actions alongside creating patterns in the weave of life which are grammatically connected to the concepts we employ to describe them.


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Schroeder, S. ‘Are Reasons Causes? A Wittgensteinian Response to Davidson’ in S. Schroeder (2001) (ed.), Wittgenstein and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Palgrave. Basingstoke. pp.150-70

Winch, P. (1981) “Eine Einstellung zur Seele” in Proceedings of The Aristotelian Society. New Series. Vol 81. pp.1-15

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

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Investigations. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Second edition. Oxford.

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