The Westray Mine Disaster and its Aftermath: The Politics of Causation

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Causation analysis is densely political in at least three ways. First, because causation is crucial to our system of attributing moral, legal and political responsibility, causation arguments are advanced for purely instrumental purposes. They do political work. Second, because any particular occurrence is the outcome of an almost infinite number of antecedent events, “but for” causation analysis produces trivial results. A judgement about causal significance is required and will depend, in part, on the goals of the analysis. The choice of goals is political, but unstated goals and hidden assumptions often exclude consideration of some possible causes as significant. These politics of causation need to be made explicit. Third, the institutional setting in which official determinations of causation are made influence the outcome. Hence, it is necessary to explore these as well. Each of these three dimensions of the politics of causation is explored through an analysis of the 1992 Westray mine disaster which killed 29 miners in Nova Scotia, and the official responses to it. It is argued that if the goal is to protect workers and nothing else, then the political-economic context that promotes the creation of hazardous conditions must be considered a significant cause of harmful occurrences. It is unlikely, however, that any of the official responses to the disaster will take this approach.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-123
Number of pages33
JournalCanadian Journal of Law and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1995


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