DRMacIver's Notebook

Capabilities can be coerced

Capabilities can be coerced

If I can force you to take an action, that implies that you are able to take that action. The converse of this is that you are not able to take that action, I cannot force you to do it. Thus, your inability gives you a certain power over me - you force me to plan in ways that compensate for this inability.

The classic example of this is how to win a game of Chicken (theoretically. I do not recommend you do this). Chicken is played as follows: Two people drive their cars directly at each other. The one who swerves, loses.

There is a simple winning move in Chicken: Visibly clamp your steering wheel, or otherwise remove your ability to swerve in a way that is visible to your opponent (the visibility part is very important). Now your opponent knows that you not just won't swerve you can't swerve, so they are forced to swerve instead. You win (unless your opponent has done the same thing at the same time of you, in which case you both lose very badly).

Thomas Schelling goes into this and similar things in great and illuminating detail in The Strategy of Conflict, but this example has the core of it: When interacting with someone in a situation of conflict, the other party will choose their strategy based only on the moves that you can make, so removing the ability to make certain moves can cause them to choose strategies that are more advantageous to you.

Conflicts don't have to be quite as adversarial as the game of Chicken. Consider something like choosing a meal. Suppose you have a reasonably strong preference against eating meat. Chances are you're often going to be coerced (explicitly or implicitly) into eating meat a lot more often than you want. If, instead, you tell people that you're vegetarian and don't eat meat, that coercion goes down significantly (not to zero, sadly, but you've got a stronger argument to make against them when they try).

(This is, of course, often also a game of chicken. More specifically a game of eating chicken).

This is also why today's favour is tomorrow's obligation: Once you have demonstrated the ability to perform the favour, now any future refusal to do it is evidence that you are choosing not to do it because it is known that you can do it, so the cost of refusal is now significantly higher.

This dynamic is, I think, at the core of a number of identities. As I've previously written, I'm something of a skeptic of the universality of "born this way" for sexualities (I'm agnostic as to whether some people's sexuality is biologically determined - it could well be the case, certainly, and I don't think it would be useful to argue with individuals' experiences of this, but at the very least I doubt it's the majority case). However, it's a very useful political tool, because it allows you to credibly claim that people have to accept you as you are, because you do not have the option to be otherwise.

On what is, in some sense, the other side of the fence, I think this also explains many popular uses of evopsych (evolutionary psychology, that is to say explaining psychological features of behaviour by arguing that they were evolutionarily advantageous).

Evopsych has one really compelling "feature": It's so underdetermined and so hard to verify that you can use it to explain just about anything you want. That's not to say that evolution didn't influence our psychology. Of course it did. But the specific ways in which evolution influenced our psychology are really hard to test for, and most evopsych arguments don't constitute anything remotely resembling a reasonable standard of evidence.

As a result if you are, say, a man who experiences a particular socially constructed version of masculinity that you're quite attached to and don't want to do the work of changing, evopsych is really useful for you, because it lets you make the born this way argument - so sorry, can't possibly change this behaviour, it's just hardwired into us.

Fortunately, the internet seems to have iterated this observation to its logical conclusion, and we are now mostly credibly signalling that we are just unable to accept evopsych arguments.