Proximate/Ultimate Causes


Cause and effect rarely exist within a simple one-to-one relationship. In fact, most events in history or business are influenced by many factor. One useful distinction for thinking about causation for any phenomenon is proximate vs. ultimate.

proximate cause would be an event which is more immediately responsible for causing an observable outcome. Sometimes this is considered a more local cause.

An ultimate cause, which is more often historically more distant or has a global impact, is sometimes considered to be the ‘true’ reason why something occurred.

An Example: Why did this patient have a heart attack?

  • Proximate cause: The blood flow to a section of heart muscle became blocked.
  • Ultimate cause: The individual’s high-fat, animal-based diet over six decades produced a condition called coronary artery disease (CAD) where a slow build-up of plaque on the inside walls of the coronary arteries. The plaque accumulation resulted in the blockage.

Remember that each type of causation is correct; however, the focus differs for scope and scale. Understanding both is important for developing workable and long-term solutions to problems.