Philosopher specialising in Business Ethics - ESSCA
Was the dissolution of the French National Assembly a reason or a cause for the formation of electoral coalitions?

This question was asked recently, in a rather similar form, during a conversation overheard on French radio. We have drawn up an imaginary dialogue to set out the problem clearly and attempt a brief answer.


Illustration par Margaux Anquetil

This imaginary dialogue involves X, a journalist, and Y, a politician:

X – The dissolution of the National Assembly has given you a reason to form an electoral coalition...

Y – I’d say it was the cause of our coalition.

X – Your coalition wasn’t formed without a reason!

Y – Of course we have reasons, first and foremost concern for the general interest and the well-being of our fellow citizens. (1)

Here we have two options.

1. The first assumes that reasons are causes, or more precisely that reasons can cause an action, in the same way that a natural phenomenon can cause a certain state of affairs. If we follow this hypothesis, X and Y are mistaken in believing they are asserting different opinions: the reason for forming an electoral coalition is also a cause, and vice versa.

The belief that our reasons for acting, cause our actions is one of the “platitudes” of ordinary psychology (2). For example, the reason: “I must keep my promise,” which was present in my mind before I carried out my promise, seems to have caused the fact that I kept it. I have no reason to doubt this, even if there were other “causes” that could have triggered my action (self-interest, reciprocity, etc.).

We also know that our actions can be explained in different ways. If I forgot to keep my promise, I won’t explain my action by saying that forgetting to keep my promise was a reason for acting; instead, I will say (while apologising profusely) that I was unaware, at the time when I should have kept it, that I had made a promise. I will therefore explain that forgetting my promise was a cause of my not keeping it (3).

In the latter case, the causal nature of my unintentional omission presupposes the independence between the cause (the forgetfulness) and the effect (the broken promise). In this way, my omission could be the subject of a “psychological investigation” which would not necessarily refer to the fact that I did not keep my promise. In the first case, on the other hand, where my reason for keeping my promise is that I have committed myself to keeping it, the two terms (my commitment and the fulfilment of my promise) seem intimately connected. Moreover, it is possible to argue that it is the fact that I have kept my promise that expresses, a posteriori, my commitment to keep that promise. But, as Ruwen Ogien says, “if we cannot conceive of a causal relation between terms that are not independent in any important sense, and if reasons for action and action are not independent things, it is absurd to envisage a causal relation between them” (4). If we follow this last argument, according to which reasons are not causes, it follows that the distinction made by X and Y between cause and reason for the formation of electoral coalitions has a certain validity.

2. It is not worth pursuing this line of reasoning any further, since there is a second, simpler and more economical way of understanding the divergence between X and Y. It is based on the presence of two levels of analysis: the first involves a causal relationship, the second a relationship between reasons for action and action.

The first level is where the transition takes place between the announcement of the dissolution of the French National Assembly and the holding of early parliamentary elections. This “passage” is a causal relationship, and the “causal explanation” of the elections leaves no room for doubt: the French Constitution “explains” the holding of the elections.

The second level is where the reasons for action come into play. With the parliamentary elections in sight, each political party deliberates and develops a strategy that may include participation in a coalition. To the question: “Why did you decide to take part in such and such a coalition?,” the formations concerned will respond by invoking reasons rather than causes; these reasons carry meanings and, to use Paul Ricœur’s words, they can be assigned to responsible agents (5).

According to this second interpretation, X and Y were each right: the dissolution of the National Assembly gave reasons to form an electoral coalition (X), and this was only possible because the dissolution caused early general elections (Y).



(1) This dialogue is based on an exchange that took place at the start of the French programme L’Esprit public, broadcast on France Culture on 16 June 2024:

The host – All this, in the end [the coming together of left-wing parties in a coalition], is thanks to Emmanuel Macron...

The guest – Or because of Emmanuel Macron.

(2) The word comes from Ruwen Ogien: he does not apply it specifically to this belief but uses it in connection with the problem of causes and reasons (Les causes et les raisons. Philosophie analytique et sciences humaines, Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 1995).

(3) The example is due to the philosopher Jonathan Dancy (Practical reality, Oxford University Press, 2000).

(4) Les causes et les raisons, op. cit. Ruwen Ogien is not expressing his personal position here: he is describing the position of a philosophical current according to which “a causal explanation must meet certain requirements, which cannot be satisfied when a reason [...] appears as an antecedent or presumed cause.”

(5) P. Ricœur, Anthropologie philosophique. Écrits et conférences 3, Editions du Seuil, 2013.

To cite this article: Alain Anquetil, “Was the dissolution of the French National Assembly a reason or a cause for the formation of electoral coalitions?” The Philosophy and Business Ethics Blog, 29 June 2024.


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