How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nudges (Book Review of THE ETHICS OF INFLUENCE: GOVERNMENT IN THE AGE OF BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE. By Cass R. Sunstein. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016)
16 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2017 Last revised: 4 Jun 2018
Date Written: March 13, 2017
“Nudges” have become an increasingly common public-policy tool that governments use to improve the lives of their citizens. Interventions that change behavior for the better, while imposing modest costs and preserving freedom, take advantage of a deep understanding of human judgment and choice. These potent and subtle interventions raise novel ethical concerns about the role of government in everyday life. In his book, The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science, Cass Sunstein launches a thorough defense of the ethics of nudges. Not only are nudges inevitable, he argues, but they also pose less serious ethical objections than penalties and mandates, and draw popular support in public-opinion surveys. Nudges commonly improve welfare more effectively than educational programs and evidence that they infantilize decision makers is sparse. And yet the prospect of a society filled with small interventions to improve our lives can seem unsettling. Nudges that tackle serious life choices or interfere broadly in the marketplace also represent a disturbing level of governmental control, even if they could be shown to be successful. So long as nudges remain confined to modest improvements in the delivery of governmental services, however, Sunstein’s defense clearly succeeds.
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