pratitya samutpada – multiple causation

2007-Jan-11

Jo Etta has a post on the Change for Missouri blog that in part asks whether the poor are to blame for their plight. The answer is, of course, “pratitya samutpada“, or multiple causation. Like nearly all human phenomena, no human situation has merely one cause. The question is in the percentages.

Any situation, whether poverty or teenage pregnancy, can be a combination of several factors such as other people having power over us, or the way the social or political system is set up which may limit our own choices, or perhaps our own unwise decisions may contribute (just how does a teenager develop wisdom anyway?), and usually will be a combination of all.

For instance, a young girl may get pregnant because a guy is able to leverage a tiny difference in power, such as a tiny five ounce metal object called a knife held to her throat. Or she may get pregnant and stay that way because society requires parental notification and so permits the guy who impregnated her (her father) to decide whether or not she is allowed to have an abortion. Or she may passively allow herself to get and stay pregnant because if she has a baby, then she will have at least someone in her life who can’t just use her and abandon her. Or all three can be true at the same time. That’s how multiple causation works.

Some people will say that if her own choices contributed even one percent for the situation, then she is totally responsible for the results. Others will say otherwise.

Same with poverty. Some person or group may start a business that undercuts prices and kills off all nearby businesses, and then uses its near monopoly to impoverish the entire community. Or our legislature may structure the legal system so that the rich can pass their wealth down to their descendents with no taxes, while the poor and middle class are required to give all their accumulated saving to hospitals or nursing homes as they lay dying, so their descendents are left with no inheritance at all and thus at a severe disadvantage. Or the poor may be that way because they made the unwise decision to fail to engage in the unethical business practices that allowed the wealthy to get that way.

See? Multiple causation. So just who is responsible when the weak get screwed by the strong?