Did Bush Cause Nick Berg's Death?

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I've met Joel Rosenberg a couple times. He used to write for World Magazine before he wrote a bestselling novel, and World posted a comment from him yesterday on their blog. Before he wrote for them, he was a student at Syracuse University, where I'm currently working on my Ph.D. I've met him a couple times due to my involvement with a Christian organization that he was involved with when he was a student here, and we have some common friends because of that.

He responds to this statement by Nick Berg's father:

My son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. This administration did this.

Joel says:

I grieve and pray for this man and his family. No one should have to suffer what they are suffering now.... But Mr. Berg's outrage at the Bush administration is both misguided and offensive. Nick Berg didn't die because President Bush sent military forces into Iraq. President Bush sent military forces into Iraq because innocent people like Nick Berg were dying every day. And many more would have died if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue his reign of terror unchecked.

This seems to me to be the right response, with one caveat. It may be that this particular man wouldn't have died had Bush not sent forces into Iraq (and thus I think it's technically false to say that he didn't die because of Bush and Rumsfeld). Still, people like him for similar enough reasons were dying, and that sort of thing would have continued. Bush's reason involved, among other things, wanting to stop such things. They didn't stop entirely, but it's nothing like the way it was when Saddam Hussein was in power.

Now I do want to make a philosophical point about the kind of causal statement often made in this kind of context. There are two general sorts of view about causation. One approach includes the counterfactual model. To determine whether X caused Y, you look at what would have been true had X not occurred. If Y would also not have occurred, then, barring other factors that might changed your judgment, X caused Y. On this model, Bush and Rumsfeld did cause Nick Berg's death. Of course, I've already caused my three children's deaths according to this sense of 'cause'. Am I morally responsible for their deaths? That at least partly depends on how they will die. I caused their deaths, on this model of causation, simply because they couldn't die if they never existed. Since they wouldn't have existed without very specific actions by me at exactly the right time, I caused their deaths. That says nothing about whether I'm morally responsible for it. Other factors come in for that. Nick Berg's father commits the same fallacy as someone blaming me for my children's deaths. He needs to say more to show that Bush and Rumsfeld caused his son's death in the right way necessary for moral blameworthiness.

The other sort of model of causation requires something stronger than this simple counterfactual dependence. The different versions vary greatly, but all of them would require more than what Nick Berg's father said to show causation. So this sort of statement is either wrong or irrelevant, depending on which sense of 'cause' you have in mind (and I think the English word 'cause' is probably rich enough to include both senses in different contexts).


There turns out to be a stronger case for Nick Berg's father's statement (though he may not have had it in mind when he said it).

Zarqawi is the man who is suspected to have beheaded Nick Berg. However, according to this article written months ago, Bush had several opportunities to kill Zarqawi in the past two years. He passed them up. (This post quotes some reasons why Bush might have spared Zarqawi.)

So inasmuch as Bush had sworn to destroy terrorists when given the opportunity and his actual failure to do so, a case could be made that Bush caused Berg's death by his failure to act. Responsibility still of course lies primarily with Zarqawi (if indeed he was the one who beheaded Berg), but Bush under this theory could share responsibility.

Nick Berg was an innocent American citizen who was not just beheaded. His head was carved off with a dull knife while he was conscious. The son of a bitch who did this is dead and like most reasonable people, I hope he is getting his just reward. We owe our brave troops a debt of gratitude for sending this evil bastard back to where he came from...Hell!

I agree -- much gratitude to those who killed that evil bastard Zarqawi (I like to compare him to a real life LeatherFace froim Chainsaw massacre!!) Anyway, I dont believe Bush is at fault for Nick Berg's death -- Nick voluntarily went to Iraq to start a business -- he was not there as a military soldier. Would Nick Berg have gone to Iraq had we not invaded? No, most likely not, BUT, I do not feel that the young Nick berg's unfortunate death was directly caused by Bush/Rumsfeld.

No one was claiming that Bush directly caused it, just that he could have prevented it and thus bears some responsibility for its happening. What counts as a cause is a hotly debated topic in contemporary metaphysics, and I think different philosophers would take different sides on this issue if they were able to lay aside their political presuppositions. What counts as a cause where you're morally responsible for all effects is just as debated in contemporary ethics, and you need to take a certain view on the metaphysical question and a certain view on the ethical question for Bush to come out sharing responsibility.

Some people will take both those views. Of course once you do it becomes hard to resist the conclusion that we're all a lot more responsible for things that we don't think we're very responsible for, so I'm not sure most people would go for this. It involves things like me being responsible for the deaths of all my descendants because I could have prevented all their deaths by not having any kids. If you want to avoid that consequence while retaining the Bush consequences it's going to take some serious finagling of minute details in a theory of causation, and that's not something I want to bother with in the comments on a post that's over two years old.

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