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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University and Managing Editor of the Journal Environmental Values.


Behaviour Change and the Intolerant Society

I have recently been reading the sociologist Frank Furedi’s 2011 book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence (Continuum). In this book, Furedi argues for a critical re-engagement with, and re-invigoration of, the notion of tolerance. According to Furedi, today tolerance tends to be treated in one of two main ways. First of all it is universally promoted through discourses of a tolerant society. Furedi argues that in this guise tolerance often becomes a system of “automatic acceptance” in and through which we consent to other people’s views, practices and beliefs. The danger here is that the tolerant society rapidly becomes akin to an indifferent society, within which tolerance is nothing more than an “expected behaviour”. Second, tolerance is often denounced as an impotent and outdated concept, which suggests that the powerful still need to bestow on others the right to be different.

In response to the defanging of tolerance, Furedi makes a spirited defence of the concept. Furedi argues that far from being a passive notion, tolerance is a key pillar of a liberal society. Emerging out of the hard fought battles of early modern society to fight the religious and cultural mistreatment of marginal groups, Furedi reminds us that tolerance has always involved a questioning of power. Tolerance is a central pillar of liberal societies precisely because it does not simply involve “automatic acceptance” of alternative ways of being. Tolerance takes notice of difference, and upholds the right of people to be different even when we fundamentally disagree with this position.

Furedi reflects on Voltaire’s famous reflection on tolerance: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Within Voltaire’s words we find one of the fundamental challenges of liberal democracy: the need to defend the moral independence of others (so long as that independence does not involve harming, or limiting the freedom of, others), so that our ability to pursue our own independence can also be preserved. In some ways, tolerance can be seen as a cost of living in a liberal society: as we have to put up with, and routinely argue against, the views of others. But this is, of course, the only way of ensuring that any idea or practice does not become totalizing and authoritarian. But Furedi argues that tolerance is not only a cost of liberalism, but also an attribute to social development. In assuring our right to be different, tolerance enables us all to develop our own moral compasses and ways of being in the world. It also enables us all to make the mistakes that are necessary in our ongoing accumulation of wisdom. It is also a framework that supports a continued dialogue between different paradigms for understanding and acting on the world.

You may well wonder why I am waxing lyrical about notions of tolerance on a blog devoted to discussions of behaviour change policy. Well, this is because Furedi argues that many contemporary behaviour change initiatives are now forming part of an increasingly intolerant society. While behaviour change may have nothing to do with religious, sexual, or cultural intolerance, Furedi argues that in making private preferences objects of governmental regulation behaviour change policies are inherently intolerant to behaviours that are ‘deemed irrational or incorrect’ (page 137). On these terms Furedi argues that all behaviour change policies involve the ‘abolition of discretion’ and the undermining of moral autonomy.

In his review of various behaviour change initiatives, and the general principles of libertarian paternalism and behavioural economics (via the RSA’s Social Brain Centre and the Mindspace report), Furedi does tend to overstate the case against the choice architectures. Many of these initiatives (particularly the RSA’s Social Brain centre) are about neurologically reasserting moral independence, not undermining it. Nonetheless, his engaging narrative does raise many crucial questions for those involved in behaviour change programmes. Despite hiding behind the veils of opt-out clauses and recalibrated defaults, behaviour changing policies are often predicated on a questioning of the right of individuals to assert their own moral independence. Does a tolerant society not require that people can choose not to eat healthily, save for their pensions, or donate their organs? But this does, often course, lead us back to the tricky question of what it is to choose. Advocates of nudge would argue that the commercialization of existence already makes it very difficult to choose healthier, more environmentally benign lifestyles even if we really want to. The champions of behaviour change policies would also argue that the policies they promote are actually attempting to enable people to more effectively align their moral beliefs with their actual daily actions (as they convert a concern for the environment into lower energy lifestyles; or a desire to donate their organs with actually being on an organ donor register).

Considering behaviour change policies in the context of tolerance raises some fascinating philosophical and ethical questions. If nothing else, it leads us to ask some important questions about the nature of freedom and moral independence that may ultimately mean we can chart a path to a more tolerant and more behaviourally progressive society. This is, in essence, what lies behind our own notions of neurologically empowering behaviour change and psychological capital.


2 Comments on “Behaviour Change and the Intolerant Society”

  1. Rachel Howell February 14, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    Interesting post, Mark. I have not read the book, but your account certainly does make it sound as though Furedi is overstating his case, in that ‘nudge’ policies do not really tend to the ‘abolition of discretion’, but simply set the defaults a different way, while allowing people the discretion to override them if they wish. *Not* changing defaults, once one realises what impact they have on people’s behaviour (e.g. cake at eye level and before fruit in a canteen = more cake consumed) would simply mean being tolerant/intolerant to different behaviours, not more or less tolerant overall.

    I want to raise a more contentious issue though, in response to your comment that “Furedi argues that in making private preferences objects of governmental regulation behaviour change policies are inherently intolerant to behaviours that are ‘deemed irrational or incorrect’ “. My question to readers of the blog is: can behaviours which cause harm to unconsenting others really be regarded merely as ‘private preferences’ which we should tolerate? Are there not behaviours which it is right that governmental regulation should be intolerant towards? The widely agreed answer to the latter question is clearly ‘yes’: there is no serious public debate about whether we should tolerate murder, for example. It is not regarded as a private preference, but, rightly, as a fundamental violation of the right of the victim to life. It seems that people tend not to want to live in a society where anything is tolerated. Perhaps other behaviours also fit in this category, then.

    Climate change is already estimated by the World Health Organisation to cause over 150,000 deaths annually. People are being deprived of their land, livelihoods, and lives by flooding, diseases, extreme weather and other climate change-related problems. As yet, cautious scientists are unwilling to attribute specific events to climate change, but the direction of trends is in line with predictions about the effects of climate change. So should behaviours which contribute to causing climate change be considered as merely ‘private preferences’? This, of course, is a great deal more complex than the case of deliberate murder by one person of another. Nobody can live a completely ‘carbon neutral’ life at present, and the behaviours which cause grenhouse gas emissions are not generally ‘wrong’ in and of themselves. But perhaps we will one day decide that there needs to be some ‘choice editing’ to cut out the most harmful aspects of our current high-carbon way of life. To be intolerant of certain behaviours in order to allow others more chance to live.

    • Mark J Whitehead March 8, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

      You raise some really important points here Rachel.

      In a sense, this whole discussion takes us back to Mill’s formulation of liberal government. For Mill, liberal government is only justified on the basis of preventing harm to others. Mill did not see harm to self as a sufficient mandate for governmental intervention. I think that on these, classical, terms the use of behavioural nudges to prevent climate change is clearly justified, on the basis that inaction would deny basic freedoms to others. This, of course, also applies to issues such as passive smoking. It is when we get onto to things such as health and personal finance that things get more complex. In these contexts it could be argued that the freedom preserving dimensions of nudge mean that you can have governmental intervention within personal affairs (because choice and freedom are still preserved).

      At a deeper level still, I think all of these discussions raise important questions about the link between democracy, choice, freedom, and moral autonomy. It seems to me that in light of rapid social and political developments we need new ways of understanding these categories that move beyond 19th century philosophical codifications.

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