The Ethics of Public Health Nudges

Dissertation, Georgetown University (2012)
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Abstract

There is growing interest in using non-coercive interventions to promote and protect public health, in particular "health nudges." Behavioral economist Richard Thaler and law scholar Cass Sunstein coined the term nudge to designate influences that steer individuals in a predetermined direction by activating their automatic cognitive processes, while preserving their freedom of choice. Proponents of nudges argue that public and private institutions are entitled to use health-promoting nudges because nudges do not close off any options. Opponents reply that the nudgee has no opportunity to deliberate over her choice. The nudger controls the nudgee, who has no real freedom of choice. In my dissertation, I salvage the concept of nudge from the charge that it merely pays lip service to freedom of choice, offer an alternative account of the moral import of nudges for the evaluation of public health policies, and provide an ethical framework for their justified use. My argument proceeds in four steps. First, I argue that nudging mechanisms often involve some form of incomplete deliberation, and do not always bypass deliberation. Second, I maintain that nudges preserve freedom of choice because they preserve the choice-set and are substantially noncontrolling. I show that the debate over nudges is plagued by confusion between real nudges, which are easily resistible and therefore substantially noncontrolling, and influences that are not easily resistible yet activate the same cognitive mechanisms as nudges. Third, I reject the view that nudges are systematically preferable to more controlling influences, even when they interfere with non-consequential liberties. I show that the principle of the least restrictive alternative often invoked in public health ethics is applied with too wide a scope. Fourth, I argue that paternalism is not central to the ethics of public health nudges. Rather, the substantive problem with nudges is that their overall cumulative effect might weaken our decisional capacities or undermine their proper exercise. This is a reason to limit recourse to certain nudges. I finally show, contra certain Kantians and Millians, that we have no perfect duty to engage or enhance decisional capacities.

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Yashar Saghai
Johns Hopkins University

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