Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Causal Paradox

Richard Ned Lebow

David Hume rightly observed that people search for causes because it makes it easier to cope with the world. Causal inference is more important still in the modern world as our lives are so interdependent and affected by all kinds of developments over which we have little control. Making the right decisions about and things like schools, jobs, investments, and foreign policies requires some degree of successful prediction. This has become more difficult in the modern world because outcomes of interest to us are more than ever affected by developments in other places and other domains that are difficult to identify and trace beforehand. Traditional values have declined making individual behavior less habitual and predictable. People have been taught to think of themselves as egoistic and autonomous actors. They frame their choices increasingly in terms of self-interest and often “game situations” in ways they think will work to their advantage. In the process they may mislead people about their motives, interests, and future behavior. This too makes prediction more difficult.

When people feel less confident about making causal inferences, they consider themselves less able to control or manage their environment and correspondingly more at risk. They feel increasingly insecure and vulnerable, and all the more so to the degree that their livelihood, status, or security depends upon prediction or causal inference. Their self-esteem may also decline to the extent they have been brought up to believe in successful agency and self-fashioning, as so many Westerners have. People have strong practical and psychological motives to find ways out of this dilemma. I identify and evaluate four different strategies for coping, all of them having to do with the reframing of cause or the search for it. I conclude with some further thoughts about which lines of inquiry strike me as most promising.

These strategies are well-represented in social science. The first and last of them have been developed or adopted by interpretivists. The middle two appeal to positivists.

1. Develop thicker explanations for cause and research methods appropriate to its discovery. This strategy rejects prediction on the grounds that most outcomes in the social world are highly context dependent. Instead, it develops general understandings that are intended to be starting points for narrative explanations and forecasts. Max Weber is the acknowledged theoretician of this strategy.

2. Acknowledge social complexity but look for simpler explanations that make use of master variables. This strategy general seeks underlying explanations for a wide range of developments and behavioral patterns. Master variables may be economic, geographical, sociological, or biological. Theories based on them are more likely to make predictions about patterns of behavior or transformations than about individual events. Rousseau, Comte, Marx, Spencer, embraced this strategy as does present-day evolutionary psychology.

3.  Deny social complexity and seek thin explanations for cause. This strategy develops models for purposes of explanation and prediction based on a few seemingly simple assumptions about people and the contexts in which they make decisions. Models at the individual or so-called “system” level assume that actors will respond in the same way to system level opportunities and constraints. Micro- and macro-economics, rational choice and other rationalist approaches exemplify this approach. 

4. Acknowledge the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making causal claims. This recognition can stimulate a search for other routes to social knowledge. Tragedy in the ancient world and agent-based models today represent this strategy, albeit in very different ways.

Strategy 1 and 4 make diametrically opposed bets about the utility of cause and the possibility of finding it. Strategy 1 stipulates that social science research must be causal in nature, although its proponents are often pessimistic about finding causes and more so about making predictions. Strategy 4 rejects the quest for cause as an illusory and even dangerous. These strategies are at the opposite ends of the causal spectrum, but united in their recognition that the search for cause is a very difficult enterprise. Strategies 2 and 3 refuse to recognize the complexity of the social world and represent escapes from reality. They are, of course, the dominant approaches within the academy.


I contend that strategies 1 and 4 are the most realistic because they build on rather than finesse the complexity, culturally determined, actor-dependent, and open-ended nature of the social world. But it should come as no surprise that strategies 2 and 3, in the form of regularity and rationalist theories, dominate social science. Regularity and rationalist approaches have colonized sociology, political science, and international relations where researchers expect, and often receive, increased status and remuneration. This institutional account nevertheless begs the question of why and how these researchers have convinced funding agencies, the media, and the Nobel Institute that what they do is science.

Part of the answer may lie in society’s need to believe in prediction. Hume suggested that prediction has always been an effective tool for coping with the world. In the modern world, it has become more important and more difficult. Developed economies are based on production of goods, provision of services, and their financing, distribution, and sale. These activities could not function without investment and judgments about likely demand. They in turn rely on estimates of such things as interest and exchange rates, price of raw materials and labor, access to markets and consumer wealth and confidence. These predictions are notoriously unreliable but nevertheless essential. People need to convince themselves they can rely on professional or personal forecasts. In their absence they may find it difficult to cope with the uncertainty and associated anxiety generated by business decisions that put them at risk. The emperor may have no clothes, but people are desperate to believe that he is covered by fine raiment. Social scientists encourage this belief. Economists and fellow travellers in allied disciplines do their best to deny uncertainty and treat as much of it as possible as risk. Uncertainty is a term for the unknowable, and risk treated as unknowns about which robust probabilities can be established.

Max Weber attributed this shift in thinking to the rise of science and its broader influence on modes of knowing. Behavior was formerly a matter of habit or belief, the latter associated with “value rationality” [Wertrationalität]. But these values and beliefs were increasingly subjected to conceptual and empirical scrutiny. For many, they became means to ends, and thus in the realm of “purposeful rationality” [Zweckrationalität]. This transformation in thought had profound practical, emotional, and even spiritual consequences. Positivism may be its fullest expression in the realm of philosophy. It treats reason as a neutral tool but employs it in a highly subjective way. It assumes that the social world is equally amenable to scientific analysis as the physical world, and that these understandings will take the form of a hierarchy of general theories. It believes in a highly ordered universe. The Vienna Circle and fellow travellers sought to make their beliefs self-fulfilling by imposing order on science and scientists. Not surprisingly they were largely ignored by scientists although mobilized by behavioral social scientists decades later in support of their hegemonic project. Reason was not by any means a neutral tool for these philosophers and social scientists but a psychological and political one.

Interpretivists have been more sensitive to the varieties of reason and to the importance of values in shaping the kind of reason used by people. To the extent they have taken Weber on board they are also more aware of the subjective nature of their project. Their choice of topics, how they are researched, and the inferences they draw from their evidence to a great degree reflect their beliefs, positions in society, and political views and projects. As Weber came to recognize late in his life, no firewall can be erected between facts and values. If positivists have difficulty with “facts” interpretivists do with values. The best way to address this problem is to be honest with oneself and others about one’s “priors:” the beliefs, interests, and goals that motivate your research.

This kind of introspection and honesty is difficult as Max Weber himself discovered. He failed to see the extent his own approach to international relations was rooted in his questionable beliefs that empires were here to stay and that competition between states and empires was Darwinian in nature. His conception of knowledge as causal narratives embeds tensions that he was blind to, in part perhaps because they threatened the integrity of his project.


The four strategies reveal different relationships reason. Strategies 1 through 3 are heavily dependent on it. They distinguish between reason as a form of logic that is essential to their theoretical formulations and the instrumental reason of actors. Strategy 1, that features casual narratives, treats instrumental reason as an empirical question; actors may or may not to varying degrees behave rationality, and in response to different kinds of reason. Researchers, however, must use instrumental reason and evidence to answer this question.

Strategy 3 seeks thin explanations for cause and basically attempts to finesse by defining knowledge as prediction and hoping to discover the regularities on which they are based. Reason interferes with regularities if it results in changes in behavior in response to past outcomes. So, there is a serious tension here between the instrumental reason that goes into the search for regularities and the failure by actors to grasp these regularities and act in response to them, or to understand but exploit or design around them. Either way, their behavior will be at odds with that predicted by rational models.

Strategy 2, that acknowledge social complexity but looks for simpler explanations based on master variables, relies on the reason of researchers to discover these variables and the ways in which they shape political, economic, and social context and behavior. Most theories that turn to master variables assume that expected outcomes will occur whether or not people are familiar with their theories. This is true for Marxism, Social Darwinism, and power transition theories. They nevertheless assume some degree of instrumental rationality on the part of actors.

Strategy 4 might be characterized as anti-reason. Sophocles, arguably the pioneer of this approach, explores the downside of reason in Oedipus Rex. Thucydides applies the same understanding to international relations. Pericles and Athens’ over-reliance on instrumental reason was a fundamental cause of the Peloponnesian War and the collapse of empire. The modern tragic understanding of international relations stresses the often counter-productive use of force and the early postwar Morgenthau followed Leo Strauss in attributing the horrors of the twentieth century to the Enlightenment. He would later adopt a more nuanced position, one that saw benefits as well as drawbacks to instrumental reason.

Strategy 4 is also populated by interpretivists interested in constitution and related practices, and by agent-based models. The former are more reliant on habit than reason but still require some degree of instrumental rationality because actors must understand and adopt approved or expected practices. Agent-based models different widely among themselves with regard to reason. Some rely on environmental pressures that reward and punish certain behaviors and function best when actors do not know the rules of the game. Other games do not have this requirement. All look for emergent properties and rely on the reasoning of their creators.

Neither positivism nor interpretivism address cause or reason in a compelling way. Thin approaches for the most part make unwarranted assumptions about the social world. Thicker approaches recognize the difficulty of establishing cause and how all claims to have done so in the social world are rhetorical at best. Their advocates are more inclined to believe that cause is a human invention rather than a feature of the world. This should prompt the realization that cause is a means to an end, and that end is helping us better negotiate the world. Any causal claims must be evaluated in terms of their practical value.

The Quest for Knowledge in International Relations by Richard Ned Lebow

About The Author

Richard Ned Lebow

Richard Ned Lebow is Professor of International Political Theory at King's College, London. He is author or co-author of more than 40 scholarly books addressing international relat...

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