Proximate causes compared to ultimate causes

A fascinating book, Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed (Penguin Books 2005) at 13, distinguishes between the proximate cause of an event and the ultimate cause. The proximate cause is the one you notice; the ultimate cause may be broader, more subtle, or take longer to bring about its effect. To illustrate the difference in a law department, mull the causes of a higher-than-average turnover rate.

The proximate cause for the departure of several lawyers, the one identified by them in exit interviews (See my post of Aug. 24, 2005 on exit interviews.) might be compensation, but the deeper, ultimate causes might be the poor profitability of the company or the leadership ineptness of its senior executives. In other words, what appears on the face to be the immediate problem may be the result of deeper, less apparent forces (See my post of Aug. 30, 2006 on systemic problems compared to individual shortcomings.). Don’t stop if you think you’ve trapped a proximate cause; keep hunting for the ultimate causes

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