The ethics of nudging

No “knockdown” objection has appeared to date that should make us reject the nudge approach overall. At the same time, serious ethical concerns have emerged that should guide and inform discussions around whether and which particular nudge policies should be…

The ethics of nudging: An overview
by Andreas T. Schmidt (University of Groningen, NL) and Bart Engelen (University of Tilburg, NL)
Philosophy Compass, 27 February 2020

So‐called nudge policies utilize insights from behavioral science to achieve policy outcomes. Nudge policies try to improve people’s decisions by changing the ways options are presented to them, rather than changing the options themselves or incentivizing or coercing people. Nudging has been met with great enthusiasm but also fierce criticism.

This paper provides an overview of the debate on the ethics of nudging to date. After outlining arguments in favor of nudging, we first discuss different objections that all revolve around the worry that nudging vitiates personal autonomy. We split up this worry into different dimensions of autonomy, such as freedom of choice, volitional autonomy, rational agency, and freedom as nondomination. We next discuss worries that nudging is manipulative, violates human dignity, and prevents more important structural reform. Throughout, we will present responses that proponents of nudging can muster.

On the whole, we conclude that the objections fail to establish that the nudge program as a whole should be rejected. At the same time, they give us important guidance when moving towards an ethical assessment of nudges on a case‐by‐case basis.

Towards the end, we provide some possible ways forward in debates around the ethics of nudging.