Responsibility, Causality, and Social Inequality

Presented at the 2016 BSPS, Workshop on Poverty and Philosophy at the University of Salzburg,  Ethics and Explanation Conference at the University of Nottingham, 2014 Eastern APA, 2014 PSA, the Social Equality Conference at the University of Cape Town, 2014 FEMMSS/SWIP Canada, and the Social Impact of Philosophy Conference at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

People disagree strongly over the causes of social inequalities, e.g. whether poverty is caused by irresponsible individual behaviors or by wider structural forces. It is typically thought that philosophers, who are not trained as empirical scientists, do not have anything useful to say about which of these causal explanations to adopt. In this paper, however, I show that if (as others have argued) causal explanations actually depend on broadly practical or normative commitments, then it follows that philosophers play an important albeit often invisible role in determining those causal explanations. I demonstrate this claim by drawing together several disparate lines of thought from feminist epistemology, philosophy of science, and moral and political philosophy, along with evidence from social psychology and economics, and bringing them to bear on the case study of poverty. The upshot is that philosophers who work to reshape our normative expectations, also work to restructure acceptable causal explanations – and hence solutions – for social inequality.

For a full draft, please email me at robin.zheng(at)