Nudging and Choice Architecture: Ethical Considerations

Nudging and Choice Architecture: Ethical Considerations
by Cass R. Sunstein
Yale Journal on Regulation
January 17, 2015
50 pages

Is nudging unethical? Is choice architecture a problem for a free society? This essay defends seven propositions:

  1. It is pointless to object to choice architecture or nudging as such. Choice architecture cannot be avoided. Nature itself nudges; so does the weather; so do customs and traditions; so do spontaneous orders and invisible hands. The private sector inevitably nudges, as does the government. It is reasonable to worry about nudges by government and to object to particular nudges, but not to nudging in general.
  2. In this context, ethical abstractions (for example, about autonomy, dignity, manipulation, and democratic self-government) can create serious confusion. To make progress, those abstractions must be brought into contact with concrete practices. Nudging and choice architecture take highly diverse forms, and the force of an ethical objection depends on the specific form.
  3. If welfare is our guide, much nudging is actually required on ethical grounds, even if it comes from government.
  4. If autonomy is our guide, much nudging is also required on ethical grounds, in part because some nudges actually promote autonomy, in part because some nudges enable people to devote their limited time and attention to their most important concerns.
  5. Choice architecture should not, and need not, compromise either dignity or self-government, but it is important to see that imaginable forms could do both. It follows that when they come from government, choice architecture and nudges should not be immune from a burden of justification, which they might not be able to overcome.
  6. Some nudges are objectionable because the choice architect has illicit ends. When the ends are legitimate, and when nudges are fully transparent and subject to public scrutiny, a convincing ethical objection is less likely to be available.
  7. There is ample room for ethical objections in the case of well-motivated but manipulative interventions, certainly if people have not consented to them; such nudges can undermine autonomy and dignity. It follows that both the concept and the practice of manipulation deserve careful attention. The concept of manipulation has a core and a periphery; some interventions fit within the core, others within the periphery, and others outside of both.