Causal Realism

July 9, 2013

“[S]keptics will always triumph when they endeavor to introduce a universal doubt into all subjects of human knowledge and inquiry.”

David Hume

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Realism may illuminate why states act the way they do but often fails to acknowledge or cast light on the limits of state actions.  Fear, honor, interest is a useful rubric for understanding why states wage wars, yet (and as I have written elsewhere) these terms often lack boundaries and can be interpreted in any number of ways. “Interest” may be the biggest offender in this regard, swaying as it does with the domestic political and philosophical leanings of the times. This is not to say that a pure “interest” does not exist or that the debate over casus belli is not interesting or important. Rather that debates over realism can be less rational than realist theorists would hope. As I examine my own flavor and preferences of realism and attempt to define it, I find a refined approach would be more useful to help us determine policy. When analyzing decisions of war, peace, and everything in between I have found that the most rational – and therefore most realist – approach is causal realism.

I do not use this term lightly and the connection to the latest movements within the New Hume philosophy is intentional, even if the lines are not entirely congruent.  The New Hume School is an Empiricist study of cause and effect and how we use reason, belief, and experience to form our ideas – this is an excellent primer on the topic.  The crux of realism should lay in the causality between what we intend to do and what we intend to achieve. This is where New Hume becomes useful: in understanding that there is a limit to what we know about the causality between objects. It presents epistemological humility where we achieve real realism in our decisions over interactions with other states; not for realism’s sake, but instead to ensure we are acting towards our true interests. Before we continue this line of thought, however, we should first digress into a discussion on how we reason toward action.

The red flag of idealism is this type of deductive argument for action:

A: It is in our interest to do something;

B: This is something;

C: It is in our interest to do this.

I will go into the details of this in the coming weeks, but if I were to paint the pro-interventionist argument with regard to Syria with a broad brush this rhetorical tautology would be it. How else could anyone possibly call for a no-fly zone to end violence in a war in which an estimated 90% of opposition and civilian casualties are caused by ground-based weapons systems?  To my mind, realists should never (and usually do not) engage in this “DO SOMETHING” rhetoric as it often clouds true interests. To avoid this pitfall realist policy reasoning must be inductively determined in a manner provided by this example:

A: This action has previously caused this effect within certain parameters;

B: We want this effect within similar parameters;

C: If we take this action there is a probability it will achieve this effect.

Inductive reasoning accounts for the probability of success with any action, putting causality within a frame allowing it to be assessed beyond and independently of pure interest. Actions should be logically built from the bottom up, should have some probability of success, and should have assumptions that can be scrutinized.

The actions of states, like the actions of any entity, will never achieve their desired results with total certainty. The quality of a plan’s underlying assumptions determines the probability of its success.  History is replete with war plans built upon a foundation of overly optimistic or hand-waved assumptions, plans to which history has not been too kind.  Interests are not a determinant of action alone – there has to be some efficacy to the action. The decision to act requires balancing of both an understanding of the scenario and what is required to act (the cost) with an assessment of the risk of taking or not taking action. Quite simply: we need to know what we are getting ourselves into. Obtaining this knowledge requires healthy doses of skepticism, directed at interests, assumptions, and risk assessments. If plans of action can survive barrages of severe doubt, the plan likely leads to real interests and through ways that will work.

There can be a tendency for causal realists such as myself to move beyond mere skepticism and err towards causal pessimism: that our actions are either (a) always ineffectual or (b) short of near certainty never worth the risk. This tendency must be guarded against as it underappreciates the risks of inaction (which is in reality an action itself).  Inductive inference that accounts for probabilities of success and risk, founded on realistic assumptions, is the only rigorous method to evaluate the true essence of a state’s interests. If it’s not worth doing, then it’s not in our interest. But to define “worth” we need to need to know the costs and risks, something idealists have a proclivity for obfuscating. But that is not to say that states should never engage in high-risk activities with low probabilities of success or where we know so little of the situation that we know our assumptions will likely be wrong. In rare circumstances boldness is required to achieve objectives that underlie our most fundamental, existential interests.  Such boldness was exhibited by the Continental Congress at the onset of the American Revolution.  However, boldness bred from ignorance leads to follow; boldness requires calculation and an understanding of what the state is embarking upon.

I hope you will all pardon this rather esoteric post, but I thought defining what realism means to me would be a good launching point for my contributions here. This process is the foundation of how I view how states should act toward each other. States have very limited resources that should be spent wisely and logically, requiring states to define their interests more narrowly to actions that are probable to succeed. In short, we need to be realistic about causality. Now that we have the theory out of the way, my future posts will focus on more practical matters that address specific policy and strategy issues. I want to thank Ryan for starting this project and inviting me to join this rather august group of contributors. I am humbled to be a part of War on the Rocks and am excited to be a part of this endeavor.


Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. 


Photo Credit: Richard Milnes