On Autonomy and the Ethics of Nudging

Last month, President Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to draw upon the insights of the behavioral sciences in their delivery of services, thereby in effect endorsing the approach and work of the year-old Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

A key weapon in the behavioral sciences armory is encapsulated in the notion of a "nudge". This was originally defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein as:

any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.

Thus, for example, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team were able to increase response rates to a workplace survey by sending emails at lunchtime rather than in the morning; and increase the likelihood of double-sided printing by displaying a dialog box if single-sided printing had been chosen as the default.

At first thought, this all sounds rather benign, and not something that should cause much worry on moral grounds. Increased efficiency certainly seems the sort of thing for which one could offer a straightforward utilitarian justification - namely, that it is likely on balance to make people's lives better not worse (assuming the ends towards which it is directed are benign).

On further thought, however, things are just a little bit more murky. Suppose, for example, that nudging policies were directed towards healthy eating, with government agencies pressing for healthy options to be well-lit and presented at eye-level. If successful, the effect would be to nudge people towards certain kinds of dietry choices - that is, choices that are likely to improve their health. This sort of policy would seem to be justified on utilitarian grounds - it would likely on balance lead to more happiness. The worry, however, is that any increased happiness would be bought at the expense of diminished autonomy.

The philosophers Dan Hausman and Brynn Welch express this worry in terms of a diminution of the freedom of will. Rational autonomy requires that decisions are made in the context of a deliberative process that is constitutive of an individual's preferences. Nudging, in that it relies on the behavioral efficacy of non-conscious psychological factors, subverts this deliberative process, rendering an individual's decisions a function of the tactics of the "choice architect" rather than truly their own. To this extent, nudging undermines rational autonomy, and therefore runs contrary to the demands of human dignity.

In this respect, the moral worry associated with nudging is not (primarily) to do with outcomes, which may well satisfy a utilitarian calculus, but instead to do with treating individuals as the means to a government's ends rather than as autonomous moral agents deserving of the dignity of fully human subjects.