Abilities despite phobias?

A common assumption in discussions of abilities is that phobias restrict an agent's abilities. Arachnophobics, for example, can't pick up spiders. I wonder if this is true, if we're talking about the pure 'can' of ability.

The problem is that 'can' judgements (and 'ability' judgements) are often sensitive to relevant preferences or norms: I might say that I can't come to a meeting (or that I'm not able to come) because I have to pick up my kids from school. This is what I'd call an impure use of 'can'. I don't actually lack the ability to come to the meeting. It's just that doing so would come at too high a cost. Perhaps arachnophobia similarly associates a high cost with picking up spiders.

Here's an intermediate example. I once did a neuroscience experiment on a grasshopper. Afterwards, we were instructed to kill the grasshopper by cutting off its head. I found this very hard. I was sweating and shaking. I couldn't do it.

But suppose you had convinced me that you would kill my entire family unless I cut off the grasshopper's head. I'm pretty sure I would have done it.

What should we say about a case like this? I'd say that I had the ability to cut off the grasshopper's head, in the pure sense, but that I also had a strong aversion to doing so. I had a strong and rationally impenetrable desire not to cut off the grasshopper's head. (The grasshopper couldn't have survived, we were told, and cutting off its head was the most humane way to kill it. I had every reason to want to cut off the head, but my aversion persisted. That's what I mean by rational impenetrability.)

Perhaps an arachnophobic has a similar aversion to picking up spiders?

I've tried to find out if phobias can be overcome by sufficiently strong incentives: would an arachnophobic pick up a spider if they knew that this is the only way to save their children from being killed? Unsurprisingly, no one has done the experiment. There could still be an observational or anecdotal answer, but I haven't found any relevant data. What I have found, in practically every overview, is that phobias come in degrees. It's also very common to label phobias as fears. Both of these points suggest that phobias don't reduce (pure) abilities.

Let's take the degrees point first. If the effect of a phobia was to make certain acts impossible, one might expect this to be a binary matter. Either you can pick up a spider or you can't. If, on the other hand, phobias make the relevant acts harder, due to a rationally impenetrable aversion, it's unsurprising that they come in degrees.

The fear point is even simpler. Fears have an experiential component (a "feeling"), a closely related physiological component (increased heart rate, sweating, etc.), and a motivational component. It's not clear why the first two would be relevant to whether the agent can pick up a spider. Well, perhaps you can't pick up a spider if you're shaking too much. But you can at least try. What I'm really interested in is whether phobics can try to act against their phobia. This is what's commonly denied in the literature on abilities.

Motivationally, fear seems to be a source of desire, in the Humean sense. Typically, fear functions as a desire not to be in a certain kind of situation. If the explanation for why you don't (try to) touch a spider is that you have a strong desire not to touch it, then it seems that touching the spider must be one of your options. You must have the pure ability to touch the spider. If touching the spider wasn't even an option, as in a case where there's no spider around, then the explanation for why you don't touch a spider would not involve your desires.

What about the extreme end of the spectrum? Extreme phobias apparently lead to panic attacks and complete loss of control. An agent with this level of arachnophobia might not try to pick up a spider even if this was the only way to save their family. Is this kind of phobia a genuine, pure lack of ability?

I'm not sure. The alternative hypothesis is that the agent has a rationally impenetrable aversion that is so strong that it can't be overridden by any incentive.

Why does it matter? Isn't this a merely verbal issue? It might be, to some extent. But it matters to our understanding of agentive modality – to our understanding of the pure sense of ability.

Phobia cases are widely cited as counterexamples to the conditional analysis, according to which an agent can φ iff they would φ if they tried to φ. The analysis seems to presuppose that trying to φ is always unproblematic: everyone can try to φ, but only some people would succeed. Phobia cases are said to show that people may be unable to φ not because they would fail if they tried but because they are unable to even try to φ.

I'm not a big fan of the conditional analysis. But I'd like to say that rational decision-making requires knowledge of one's options, and I'd like to construe the relevant options as (something like) tryings. Phobias raise a challenge to this view. Presumably you could be rationally unsure whether you have arachnophobia. If arachnophobia makes you unable to try to pick up a spider, this suggests you could be rationally unsure about your options.

(For what it's worth, I don't think it would be a huge cost if severe phobias reduced one's options. Uncertainty of severe phobia would then be like uncertainty about being in a Frankfurt case, where an external power would prevent you from trying. But I'd like to say that such cases are so unusual and pathological that they can be mostly ignored.)


# on 25 June 2024, 05:49

Thanks, this is very interesting! Maria Alvarez makes similar and related points in her paper 'Agency and Two-Way Powers' in case you're interested (though it is not as much on trying if I recall correctly).

# on 25 June 2024, 11:33

Thanks! I hadn't read that. Alvarez gives a similar diagnosis for cases of coercian and compulsion, with which I agree. She doesn't mention phobias directly (because phobias don't obviously result in specific actions that might be called exercises of agency), but she would probably be sympathetic to what I suggest.

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