Moving Beyond the Single Cause Fallacy

Hans Morgenthau, in his seminal work on realist international relations theory, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, lays out one of the most common political fallacies which he refers to as the “method of the single cause.” The single cause fallacy leads one to distill a complex problem with many factors into a single primary cause, allowing one to believe that ‘solving’ that cause would solve the entire problem.

Morgenthau describes its application to international policy thus:

Are not the remnants of feudalism the great single cause making for war in this world? Let us do away with aristocratic government everywhere, the classical liberals would say, and we will have peace. In practical politics, this general proposition was frequently narrowed down to more specific remedies intended to meet particular situations. Thus, as we have seen, Bentham and the Benthamites pointed to the struggle for colonies as the main cause for war; they advocated abstention from colonial policy as a remedy for war. For others, tariffs were the source of all evils in the international sphere; to them, free trade was the source of all good. Others would abolish secret treaties and secret diplomacy in general and, through popular control of international policies, secure peace. Is not modern war and outgrowth of imperialism which, in turn, is a result of the contradictions of monopoly capitalism? Hence, let us do away with capitalism, the Marxists would say, and we will no longer have war: socialism is peace. (Sixth Ed., 47)

With complex social and political problems we can not simply solve for x. There is a y, and a z, and in most cases an entire alphabet of variables. These single cause simplifications can arise from scapegoating or from well-meaning attempts to solve problems, yet even the most well-meaning attempts will be incomplete and insufficient.

Take the recent gun violence debate for example. The NRA would tell us that violent media and video games are the cause of gun violence. Restrict such media and the problem is solved. Gun control advocates would say that the availability to purchase assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are the problem. Ban those and the problem is mostly fixed. While the NRA position is clearly scapegoating, since no evidence indicates that media and video games are even a minor causational variable, even the well-meaning position of gun control advocates is an insufficient single cause simplification of the problem. One must also address the role poverty and unemployment plays in gun violence, the role of drug cartels and organized crime, the role of mental health, the role of bullying, etc. A policy that addresses only a a single cause is not necessarily bad, but it will not solve the problem on its own. This is not to say that everyone who is working on the issue of gun violence has fallen into the single cause fallacy–many do seek to identify and address the comprehensive problem and multiple variables–but it is important to identify this fallacy since many people, especially policy makers who thrive on oversimplification of issues, have.

If we are to truly address our social and political problems, we must cease to be intimidated by complexity and avoid the comforting practice of oversimplification.