Cause and effect

When we argue about the cause of something--why something happened--we employ a cause/effect argument.  Cause and effect (or causal) arguments are generally more complicated than definition or evaluation arguments, perhaps more susceptible to fallacies, namely the hasty generalization and post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  Furthermore, the writer of a causal argument must face the likelihood that any effect could be the result of a number of possible causes.  Recently, the hall light in my house quit working.  I assumed that the light bulb had burned out, so I put in a new one.  When I flipped the light switch, I was surprised when the light didn't come on.  I looked the light over, but nothing seemed amiss, and I concluded that repairing it was beyond my (very limited) ability.  Several months later, an electrician told me that the light's wiring had worn out, so I bought a new light and installed it.  Problem solved.

When writing a causal paper (X caused/did not cause Y), the writer often must consider a number of possible, adequate causes for the effect in question.  Just as it appeared to me that a burnt-out light bulb was the cause of the inoperative light, the writer may be tempted to conclude that the most obvious, usual cause is responsible for the effect in question.  In addition to asking if a possible cause is adequate to produce the effect and if there are other possible, adequate causes, there are other questions the careful arguer must ask:  Were conditions right for the possible cause to have led to this effect?  Does this possible cause invariably produce this effect?  These statements are framed in the past tense, but causal arguments may also be framed about future or hypothetical situations (e.g., "The growing national deficit will not lead to a national fiscal crisis") and in the present tense ("Video games do not lead people to commit violence in the real world"). 

Like some definitional ones, some causal statements are not arguments but established facts ("Smoking can cause lung cancer" or "Human encroachment on natural habitats is a major cause for the endangerment of many animal species").  Some causal operations occur in one step: continual reading of small print in poor light may cause one to have eye problems.  Yet other causal situations happen in several steps and are better explained by the construction of "causal chains."  For example, one interested in writing about the cause of the inordinate number of automobile fatalities among unmarried males under that age of twenty-five may establish the following chain composed of several "links":
    Young men experience more peer pressure than most other groups of people ------>
    This peer pressure induces young men to consume high quantities of alcohol ----->
    Many young men drive their automobiles while intoxicated ----->
    Those driving while drunk (more of them unmarried males under twenty-five than any other group)
         are more likely than others to die in automobile accidents.
Each link in the chain requires sufficient explanation, perhaps a paragraph or two, in an extended essay.  The links may be found or established through observation, research, or both.

Part of a causal argument may be devoted to a discussion of alternate causes--a fair consideration of them and, perhaps, a reasoned dismissal of them.  For example, one might acknowledge that many video games are violent and that, yes, it would seem reasonable to assume that they may influence an immature, undiscerning person to transfer his violent gameplay into the real world.  On the other hand (one may conclude), violent games only influence violent behavior in those who are already, for reason X, disposed toward violence.  As in all argument, readers and writers should be wary of causal arguments that are advanced to promote a narrow agenda.  Texas Congressman Tom DeLay, for example, attributed the tragic murders in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado to the fact that evolution was taught at the school.  Few well-informed people would agree with such a statement.  Perhaps only those who share Mr. DeLay's hostility toward science and his wish to impose a narrow "biblical" agenda in schools would find his argument viable.