It’s All for Your Own Good

Book Review by Jeremy Waldron of Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism by Cass R. Sunstein and  Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas by Cass R. Sunstein: “…Nudging is about the self-conscious design of choice architecture. Put a certain choice architecture together with a certain heuristic and you will get a certain outcome. That’s the basic equation. So, if you want a person to reach a desirable outcome and you can’t change the heuristic she’s following, then you have to meddle with the choice architecture, setting up one that when matched with the given heuristic delivers the desirable outcome. That’s what we do when we nudge.
All of this sounds like a marketer’s dream, and I will say something about its abusive possibilities later. But Sunstein and Thaler have in mind that governments might do this in a way that promotes the interests of their citizens. Governments might also encourage businesses and employers to use it in the interests of their customers and employees. The result would be a sort of soft paternalism: paternalism without the constraint; a nudge rather than a shove; doing for people what they would do for themselves if they had more time or greater ability to pick out the better choice….
…allowing dignity to just drop out of the picture is offensive. For by this stage, dignity is not being mentioned at all. Sunstein does acknowledge that people might feel infantilized by being nudged. He says that “people should not be regarded as children; they should be treated with respect.” But saying that is not enough. We actually have to reconcile nudging with a steadfast commitment to self-respect.
Consider the earlier point about heuristics—the rules for behavior that we habitually follow. Nudging doesn’t teach me not to use inappropriate heuristics or to abandon irrational intuitions or outdated rules of thumb. It does not try to educate my choosing, for maybe I am unteachable. Instead it builds on my foibles. It manipulates my sense of the situation so that some heuristic—for example, a lazy feeling that I don’t need to think about saving for retirement—which is in principle inappropriate for the choice that I face, will still, thanks to a nudge, yield the answer that rational reflection would yield. Instead of teaching me to think actively about retirement, it takes advantage of my inertia. Instead of teaching me not to automatically choose the first item on the menu, it moves the objectively desirable items up to first place.
I still use the same defective strategies but now things have been arranged to make that work out better. Nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child. The people doing this (up in Government House) are not exactly using me as a mere means in violation of some Kantian imperative. They are supposed to be doing it for my own good. Still, my choosing is being made a mere means to my ends by somebody else—and I think this is what the concern about dignity is all about….”