posttitle = Causal Explanations vs Normative Explanations titleClass =title-long len =45

Causal Explanations vs Normative Explanations

If somebody asks you why, there are often two markedly different kinds of explanations you could give.

Their differences are psychological & social in addition to being semantic.

Two kinds of Why

“everything is the way it is because it got that way”
— D’Arcy Thompson

I run a software company, and sometimes users will email me asking, “Why is feature X like this? It should be like that.”

My response, which I don’t necessarily write out: if you want to know “why feature X is like this”, well… I could tell you the long history of how Complice mutated its way to being what it is today, which would contain a causal explanation for why the feature is the way it is.

…however, if you’re looking for not a causal explanation, but rather a normative explanation, or justification of “why it makes sense for feature X to be like this”, then I don’t really have one. I basically agree with you. All I have to offer is that it would be work to change it. And that I probably will at some point but it hasn’t been a priority yet.

We might say that causal explanations explain “why [proposition] is true” whereas normative explanations explain “why [[proposition] is true] is ‘reasonable,’ or ‘acceptable.'”

I think we want to be a little wary of the second kind of explanatory process.


I first want to briefly note that my thesis is not “beware of arguments that lead to a conclusion that a particular state/action is correct”. My thesis is “beware of the impulse to begin with the goal of justifying a certain state of affairs or action”. Reason 1 is because if you look for one you’ll find one, making it not great evidence. Lots has been written about this in abstract. I recommend, in particular, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s article The Bottom Line.

Reason 2 is that as a social impulse, this kind of thinking is a kind of defensiveness which isn’t helpful for relationships or for accurately figuring things out.

Case study: a person, Hartlen, goes into work one morning, and their boss asks “Hey, what happened last night? I came in this morning and the Wearwolf3000 was still running… you were the last one out, and you know it needs to get turned off at the end of your shift…”

Because of the general cultural sense of fear and scarcity present in most workplaces, Hartlen is likely to jump into justification mode: “Well, I was running really late because I was finishing up those reports you wanted, and I got a call from my mother just as I was putting on my coat to go, and, and…”. In order to maintain status as a good employee, Hartlen needs to convince their employer that what they did was reasonable, right?


This defensiveness is such an unpleasant mental motion. It doesn’t set Hartlen up for better performance in the future, it probably doesn’t actually improve their relationship with their boss, and it puts responsibility onto some random contingencies that probably aren’t easily in anyone’s control. Well, or Hartlen blames someone else. But this approach is broadly unhelpful in the long-term, even though it might feel necessary in the short-term (or if the employers are really blame-oriented, might be necessary).

So have no excuses.

But what of the boss’ question: “what happened last night?”

Well, after saying “I forgot to turn it off, which I know was my responsibility last night” (assuming this is the case) and owning that, then perhaps Hartlen can begin the process of figuring out a causal explanation for what happened. And it’s important to solve that: the Wearwolf3000 uses up expensive lycanphthalate if it’s left running.

But now, having ditched the impulse to justify, the explaining process can happen from a state of mind that has nothing to prove. By looking at the whole system, rather than just the one part that is Hartlen, this line of thinking can reason clearly about which factors contributed to last night’s error. This same line of thinking can then design a better system, to prevent it from happening again, whether that’s as simple as a reminder on the doorknob or as sophisticated as modifying the Wearwolf3000 so it automatically powers down overnight.

Note that you might start out with a causal explanation, and then veer towards justification. Staying on chosen path in your mind is a skill.

Both roles matter

I recently shared my experience of a sticky note on a dirty spatula, which reads “This was with the clean utensils”. One point of that post is that the same message can be given or received with a judgemental or nonjudgemental mindset.

So if we assume that Hartlen’s boss isn’t actually planning to fire them if they don’t have a good excuse, then it’s in the boss’ interest to maintain a nonjudgemental and system-oriented frame while asking about it. Which… might not be enough.

Fears of rejection runs deep, so it might require not just a particular way of speaking in that moment, but a nonjudgemental relationship with the employees in general, and a general sense of trust. And an ability to interrupt someone mid-justification and say “it’s okay, I’m not looking for excuses. I want us to be on the same side, figuring out how to prevent it next time, whether it’s you next time or one of the other agents.”

Which is hard to do, and so worth it.

Justification can also take the form of rationalization of beliefs or opinions or more conscious acts… and again, this can be triggered by someone else asking “why” in a frame that (implicitly or explicitly) suggests that the person is a failure if the reasons don’t make sense, rather than asking “why” from a place of curiosity. The decision probably made sense to the decider at the time, so it’s worth figuring what information, experiences, and contexts made it reasonable.

And, as before, that puts you in a better frame for improving next time.

(For more on the gradients between defensive and curious mindsets, check out the case study in my post on Subject-Object Notation.)

(For a long article about this history of these two kinds of explanations, see this post on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

1 Comment

hamnox » 25 Oct 2015 » Reply

Ironically, my first gut-impulse on reading this is to go up to people and demand a reasonable explanation for why they didn’t frame this or that question in a more non-judgmental way.

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