Philosophical Studies

, Volume 167, Issue 1, pp 1–23 | Cite as

Omissions as possibilities

  • Sara Bernstein


I present and develop the view that omissions are de re possibilities of actual events. Omissions do not literally fail to occur; rather, they possibly occur. An omission is a tripartite metaphysical entity composed of an actual event, a possible event, and a contextually specified counterpart relation between them. This view resolves ontological, causal, and semantic puzzles about omissions, and also accounts for important data about moral responsibility for outcomes resulting from omissions.


Causation Omissions Causation by omission Moral responsibility  



This paper has benefitted enormously from comments by Mark Heller, Carolina Sartorio, Xiaofei Liu, Rachael Briggs, and Stephen Kearns. I also thank Mark Balaguer, Randy Clarke, Owen Flanagan, Daniel Nolan, Alex Rosenberg, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for extensive conversation and feedback, and audiences at the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference, Australian National University, Melbourne University, 2012 Pacific APA, Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, Triangle Area Philosophy Symposium, Arizona State University, Boise State University, and Cal State-Los Angeles.


  1. Beebee, H. (2004). Causing and nothingness. In L. A. Paul, E. J. Hall, & J. Collins (Eds.), Causation and counterfactuals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bernstein, S. Omission impossible (ms).Google Scholar
  3. Clarke, R. (1994). Ability and responsibility for omissions. Philosophical Studies, 73, 195–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Clarke, R. (2010). Intentional omissions. Nous, 44, 27–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clarke, R. (2012). Absence of action. Philosophical Studies, 158(2), 361–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Davidson, D. (1967). The logical form of action sentences. In N. Rescher(Ed.), The logic of decision and action. University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  7. Dowe, P. (2000). Physical causation. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dowe, P. (2010). Proportionality and omissions. Analysis 70(3), 446–451.Google Scholar
  9. Dowe, P. The power of possible causation (ms).Google Scholar
  10. Fischer, J. M., Ravizza, M. (1998). Responsibility and control: A theory of moral responsibility. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Lewis, D. (1968). Counterpart theory and quantified modal logic. Journal of Philosophy, 65(5), 113–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lewis, D. (1973). Counterfactuals and comparative possibility. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 2(4), 418–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lewis, D. (1979). Counterfactual dependence and time’s arrow. Noûs, 13, 455–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. McGrath, S. (2005). Causation by omission: A dilemma. Philosophical Studies, 123(1–2), 48–125.Google Scholar
  15. Sartorio, C. (2006). Disjunctive causes. Journal of Philosophy, 103(10), 521–538.Google Scholar
  16. Sartorio, C. (2010). The prince of wales problem for counterfactual theories of causation. In A. Hazzlett (Ed.), New waves in metaphysics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  17. Sartorio, C. (2011). Actuality and responsibility. Mind, 120(480), 1071–1097.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schaffer, J. (2005). Contrastive causation. Philosophical Review, 114(3), 327–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Schaffer, J. (2012). Disconnection and responsibility. Legal Theory, 18(04), 399–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.Google Scholar
  21. Thomson, J. (2003). Omissions. Philosophy and phenomenological research, 66(1), 81–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Unger, P. (1995). Living high and letting die. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Wasserman, R. Is causation extensional? (ms).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

Personalised recommendations