Proximate versus Underlying Causes

What type of causal relationships do we want to identify? Did World War I begin because a man with a funny mustache was shot or because of perceived first strike advantages? Did World War II start because of Hitler’s actions in Europe or because of war reparations Germany was forced to pay?

Broadly, there are two types of explanations: proximate and underlying causes. We value underlying causes much more than proximate causes because underlying causes give us useful policy recommendations.

Takeaway Points

  1. A proximate cause explains why something happens when it did in the way it did.
  2. An underlying cause explains why something was going to eventually happen.
  3. We focus on underlying causes because they provide us with better advice on how to prepare for the future.