Schelling points

I refered to these in an earlier post, so I figure a definition is in order. I originally came across it in David Friedman’s ruminations on the origins of Natural Rights theory. He defines it broadly as “a possible solution to the problem of coordination without communication”.

“Communication” might be better defined as meaningful communication. He lists many examples in the essay where no communication is possible, as well as zero-sum conflict where communication would not be believed.

The functional definition (i.e. the way I use the term) is that a Schelling Point is a point or marker that is obvious to both sides without explanation, and could also mark some point of principal to one of the sides, which would cause that side to expend more effort defending it than the point might seem to be worth.

The usual example of a Schelling Point is a river (flowing North to South in this example), with an opposing tribe on each side who need to set a border. There is no significant difference difference in land between using the river as the border, and using the river plus five feet West of the border. However, the river itself will always be chosen as the border because A)it’s obvious, and B) one tribe could very well attach special meaning to the river above and beyond the land itself, i.e. the Western Tribe shall not stain the ground made holy by the River God (or something like that).

The other example is abortion. The two popular Schelling Points at which “life begins” are considered to be either at conception (by the pro-lifers) and birth (by the pro-choicers). Both of these points are trivial in a lot of ways; the components are largely the same as they were before each event (differing in union in one way, in location and dependence the next). But, both of them are obvious to both sides in the dispute and both can be plausibly seen as having special meaning to either side (Ensoulment in one case, no physical attachment to the mother in the other).

In looking over this, I see I’ve called birth “trivial”. Oh well, the point still stands.

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