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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Nudge: the Real Ethical Debate?

I recently returned from my second trip to the Netherlands this year. As with my first visit I was speaking with various government officials and advisors about the application of behavioural insights to public policy design. Discussions are now fairly well advanced in the Netherlands concerning how the central government would like to apply nudge-type policies, with some ministries (such as the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment) already applying new behavioural insights to a range of its initiatives. One of the many interesting things of about the Dutch case is the way in which the ethical debate concerning nudge-type policies is being expressed.

The conventional ethical debates concerning nudge are now well rehearsed. While nudge advocates claim that opt-out clauses and disclosures address the ethical concerns raised by the application of psychological insights to public policy design, those suspicious of the nudge agenda claim that it is manipulative and ultimately undermines the freedom and moral autonomy of the individual. I have argued elsewhere that it is important to move this ethical debate beyond the zero-sum-game of freedom—where nudge results in a loss of freedom and not nudging preserves individual autonomy—and instead discuss changing understandings of the nature of freedom. But the purpose of this post is not to delve into these challenging debates. Instead is seeks to ask a more existential question: should there be an ethical debate about nudge at all? I ask this question because it is one that I have consistently encountered during my travels in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands two reports have been produced this year (by official scientific bodies which are tasked with advising government), which explore the application of the behavioural sciences to public policy-making. The first report was produced by the Council for Environment and Infrastructure (RLi) and is entitled Influencing Behaviour: Behaviour Analysis Framework for the Development of a More Effective Environmental Policy. The second is titled Resisting Temptation and was produced by the Dutch Council for Social Development (RMO). In many ways the two reports mark out the ethical terrain of debate concerning nudging in the Netherlands. On the one hand the Influencing Behaviour guide provides a comprehensive review of how you can develop behaviourally informed public policy. The Resisting Temptation report on the other hand provides a detailed analysis of ethical issues that are raised by nudge, and directly asks when a nudge may and may not be morally justified. Following the interviews I have conducted in the Netherlands, it appears that these two reports represent the dominant positions concerning the ethics of nudging. It is important to realise that these are not positions which state nudging is ethical or unethical. The debate instead concerns whether there are ethical concerns that are particular to nudging as opposed to other forms of public policy.

The fairly pragmatic Influencing Behaviour report sets out to explain how the behavioural sciences can inform public policy, with limited discussion of ethics. The focus of this report reflects the position of many policy makers and academics in the Netherlands who claim nudge-type policies are being unfairly held to a different level of ethical expectation that other forms of policy. Related arguments state that laws, regulations, financial incentives and educational initiatives can all seek to change our behaviours, in directions we may not want, and for reasons we may not perceived, so why should we be particularly concerned about nudges?

The more philosophically oriented Resisting Temptation (only available in Dutch) approaches the question of nudging in a very different way. At one level the report draws attention to the ethical need to make nudges as transparent as possible. Transparency is seen to be crucial because unlike the overt presence of laws and education in our lives, we are often unaware of the impacts of nudges and thus cannot contest them. At another, deeper level, the report also argues that the insights of the behavioural sciences should not just be used to direct people in a preset behavioural direction, but to empower people to be able to regulate their own conduct so that it can be more effectively aligned with their goals and values. This is the kind of progressive behavioural goal our own work on mindfulness based behaviour change seeks to support.

What my time in the Netherlands has illustrated to me is not that there should not be an ethical debate about the application of behavioural insight to public policy, but that perhaps we often get caught up in the wrong debate. The debate should be less about reactionary claims about the subversive goals of choice architects (which, in my experience, are simply not there), and more about the goals, transparency and empowering potential of all forms of public policy. On these terms it is clear that there is good and bad practice in both regulatory and nudge-type policy initiatives.

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