Fifty Shades of Red. Proportionality, Causality, and Philosophy of Life

In philosophy of causation, the notion of proportionality is important. It came to the philosophical literature from Yablo (1992) and has been extensively discussed since then.

Woodward (2021, 15-16) characterizes the notion as follows:

“Proportionality concerns the extent to which there is a match between the variation in the cause and the variation in the candidate effect—more precisely, the extent to which the causal claim is formulated in terms of variables that capture the full range of dependency relations that hold in the situation of interest without falsely implying dependency relations that do not hold.”

A canonical example that comes from Yablo (1992, §4) is the following:

A trained pigeon is conditioned to peck at red to the exclusion of other colors. It is shown a red object and it pecks. The shade of red of the object was scarlet. Did the pigeon peck because the object was scarlet, or did it peck because the object was red?

At the first sight, there does not seem to be much difference between the two. A scarlet object is a red object. Maybe it could be said that, in this case, we are talking about the same cause with different names and the difference is only a verbal one.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the two claims:

1. The pigeon pecked because the object was scarlet.

2. The pigeon pecked because the object was red.

The difference is that (1) and (2) make different suggestions about when the pigeon would not have pecked. (1) suggests that the pigeon would not have pecked, had the object been maroon (a different shade of red). This is not true. It would still have pecked. (2) captures the fact that, had the object been maroon, the pigeon would still have pecked.

Notice that this difference is rather subtle. (1) and (2) suggest many similarities. For example, both imply that, had the object been blue, the pigeon would not have pecked. The difference is not that (1) leaves us completely blind.

The example shows that more abstract characterizations of causes are sometimes to be preferred when we track dependencies. However, not all abstraction is good. For example,

(3) The pigeon pecked because the object had a color.

is not informative. Surely, if the object was transparent, the pigeon would not have pecked. However, (3) wrongly suggests that any color whatsoever makes the pigeon peck.

Proportional causal claims, then, provide us with exact information about which changes in the cause are relevant to certain changes in the effect. In terms of explanation, a proportional explanation provides exact information about how the changes in an explanandum depend on changes in explanans.

Since I first read about proportionality, I found it not only philosophically interesting but also something that characterizes the philosophy of life. Our actions should be proportional.

First, we should choose what is the range of outcomes we wish our actions to have and contrast this range with the range of outcomes we do not wish to have or that are irrelevant. For example, if I need to change my mood, I have to be specific and honest with the amount of change I wish for. No one can be happy all the time and I should not resort to impossible courses of action to gain eternal happiness. However, if I wish to get a bit better in my focus and motivation, there might be a way to do so. One is to get more light in the morning to set the mood. However, even here we need to be careful and proportional. If I need to get more light in the morning, it is not enough that I turn on an additional lamp in the room. Rather, I have to use a light therapy lamp. Only this type of lamp has enough power to provide a sufficient amount of light. The type of effect I wish to have determines what I can do. And when I conduct my action, I need to be careful to do the types of changes that are associated with the desired effect.

Secondly, if I wish to do something that is supposed to improve my life, I constantly must ask whether what I achieve through my action makes a difference to anything. For example, if I consider bright light therapy in order to do my work better, I need to ask whether the improvement in the mood really matters for me doing my work better. It might be that I could achieve a bit more but, in the overall picture, the structures of academic work might weigh so much that nothing depends on my actions. In order to achieve things, it might not be enough to change one’s mood. It might require that one becomes a machine. The proportionality principle says that the focus on mood is misleading, when the causally relevant difference is not between one mood and another, but between having a mood and being a machine.

Now that the football world cup is currently played, we may notice that there is a term, at least in Finnish, for “alibi defending” (or “alibi doing-what-ever”). When a player is alibi defending, he does something in the field that looks like contributing to the team’s effort but, in fact, he is doing nothing.

Now, the standard analysis would be that the player who is alibi defending only acts as if he defending while he is not in fact defending. This analysis can be challenged. If you are a player in the field, whatever you do can is playing football. So the player who is alibi defending belongs to the category playing football. The standard, however, is not good enough. Yet, not every bad performance in the field is alibi-doing. Alibi defending is defending in a way that does not contribute in any significant way to the overall defense of the team, and the player who does it is aware of this.

The notion of proportionality helps us to understand what is going on. The player does not change his actions from playing to not playing and thereby shatter the defense of his team. Rather, he changes his actions from playing on a certain level to playing on a level below the required standards. The effort is not proportional to what is expected from the team to succeed. The team loses because the player lowers his standards. The team does not lose because the player stops playing. There is a lot of variation that a player can put in his playing depending on the situation. In the case of alibi defending, the variation is below what can be accepted, given the need to achieve a certain effect. What makes alibi defending morally wrong is that what the player knows about causes and effects follows the proportionality principle and the player ignores this information and the goals of his team.


Woodward, James (2021). Causation with a Human Face: Normative Theory and Descriptive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Yablo, Stephen (1992). Mental causation. Philosophical Review 101 (2):245-280.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *