Defending moral autonomy against an army of nudgers

ESSAY: Frank Furedi slams the ‘choice architects’ who bypass public debate in their zealous effort to reshape our minds and bodies.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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This year, spiked will be upping the ante in our culture war against the new politics of nudging and in defence of individual autonomy. In this new essay, Frank Furedi takes the nudge-obsessed authorities to task for denigrating our right to make moral choices.

I have always had a visceral revulsion for the idea of ‘false consciousness’. As a student radical in the early 1970s, I was continually being warned about the dangers of this social disease. Many on the left argued that the general public, specifically the working classes, did not understand what their real interests were. The self-appointed carriers of true consciousness pointed to certain areas of plebian behaviour, such as seeking solace in football or voting for the UK Conservative Party, as proof of the widespread nature of ‘false consciousness’.

Herbert Marcuse’s claim that people are driven by ‘false needs’ was continually talked up by the apparently enlightened minority, who presumed to know what the ‘real needs’ of their fellow citizens were. In recent decades, this outlook has come to be astonishingly influential within the professional middle classes, particularly in the United States. Consider the writings of the American journalist Thomas Frank, who frequently espouses an updated version of the idea of false consciousness. His 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, exemplifies this patronising outlook; it concludes that ‘people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about’.

In recent years, the idea that people are too thick to know what is in their best interests has influenced and shaped policymaking on both sides of the Atlantic. In one sense, this diagnosis of intellectual poverty among the masses is simply a new expression of an old idea. Nineteenth-century social engineers regarded the targets of their work – the masses – as both irrational and easily suggestible. In the twentieth century, psychologists and advertisers argued that the world would be a better place if they could successfully manipulate the public to act in accordance with the latest ‘scientific’ insights. They expressed their assumption of moral authority openly and with little concern for insulting people’s sensibilities.

So in 1941, Dr Ernest Dichter, the president of the Institute for Motivational Research, stated that ‘the successful ad agency manipulates human motivations and desires and develops a need for goods with which the public has at one time been unfamiliar’. Today, manipulating human motivations remains a key aim of both the public and private sectors. Only now, the old-fashioned motivational techniques have been given a new boost by so-called behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology.

In the twenty-first century, motivational research has been embraced by governments that have effectively given up on the idea of morally or politically motivating their citizens. Policy advisers frequently complain that citizens refuse to acknowledge the wisdom that they are offering and instead adopt forms of behaviour that are antithetical to expert advice. In effect, these policy advisers, along with government officials and politicians, have concluded that the time for open debate and argument is over, since arguing with people who act irrationally is pointless. They claim that what is now required are new techniques of behaviour management and motivational manipulation, in order to encourage the public to act in accordance with best practice.

That is why both the British and American governments have embraced the doctrine of ‘nudge’, as most explicitly espoused by the American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Relying on behaviour-management techniques, this doctrine, described as ‘libertarian paternalism’, aims to manipulate people into making choices which the powers-that-be consider ‘right’.

Bypassing public debate

In Britain, a Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team, otherwise known as the Nudge Unit, has been busy advising different departments of state about which psychological tricks are likely to achieve the best results. In a report published last month, it explained that the ‘traditional tools of government’ have failed to alter people’s ‘behavioural problems’, and therefore it is spearheading a mission to ‘help the UK government develop and apply lessons from behavioural economics and behavioural science to public policymaking’.

The main justification for displacing the ‘traditional tools of government’ with behaviour-management techniques is the apparently novel discovery that people do not always act rationally. The report states: ‘Many of the most pressing public policy issues cannot be addressed without thinking about the behaviour of individuals. Behavioural science and behavioural economics show us that, very often, we do not behave in a way that we would be expected to if we were perfectly “rational” human beings.’

As it happens, we don’t need behavioural science to ‘show us’ that people behave in ways that violate the dictates of expert advice and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis. We all know that human beings are subject to habit, slothfulness and passion. Some people take pleasure from indulging in activities that come with a health warning or which run counter to the latest expert advice. Sometimes we even display altruistic behaviour that might directly contradict our self-interest.

For centuries, these different forms of behaviour have kept moral entrepreneurs and experts – those concerned with understanding and remoulding our behaviour – in employment. In principle, of course, people who object to certain kinds of human behaviour are entitled to speak out and warn the public about the potential unhappy consequences of such behaviour. In a democratic society, argument and debate about the negative or destructive consequences of specific forms of conduct can help to encourage the flourishing of a vibrant public life. Tragically, however, the aim of today’s ‘libertarian paternalism’ is to bypass public debate and opt for psychological manipulation instead.

Outwardly, some of the techniques of behaviour management proposed by the UK government’s Nudge Unit seem harmless. For example, it boasts about introducing a trial of ‘prompted choice’ for organ donation in order to increase the number of donor registrations. This trial will ask people if they would like to be organ donors when they are applying online for a driving licence. The unit believes that this will significantly increase the number of organ donors.

It may well do that, and in many ways the trial makes perfect sense. However, the premise of this proposal, and of the numerous other nudge proposals, is fundamentally regressive. Instead of opting to have a grown-up public debate about the responsibilities that citizens have towards one other, today’s ruling elite prefers to treat adults as children who need to be prompted and coaxed to do the right thing. This strategy of altering behaviour displaces the political challenge of influencing people through ideas and argument.

Paternalistic behaviour is entirely appropriate in relation to childrearing. Many parents realise that there is little point in arguing with a toddler; it is far better simply to use childrearing techniques that will encourage little Mary to act in accordance with her mother’s desires. However, when similar techniques are used in relation to grown-up citizens, then we really can glimpse the corrosion and ultimately the corruption of public life.

Paternalistic behaviour towards children is seen as acceptable because we presume that parents possess the experience and knowledge that their infants lack. Parents are responsible for their children and therefore are expected to have some authority and control over their behaviour. Infants lack experience and more importantly they lack the capacity for autonomy and moral independence. But things are fundamentally different when it comes to the relationship between government and adults. For a start, it is far from clear where behavioural economists, policymakers and politicians get the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour. Experience shows that experts do not always possess wisdom and that ordinary people have very little to learn from them.

Denying us moral responsibility

Advocates of nudging describe themselves as ‘choice architects’ and claim that their policies help people make the right choices. What they mean is that their aim is to construct a scenario where people make the kind of choices that our moral superiors believe to be right. The aim of behavioural-management techniques is to prevent, or at least discourage, people from making the ‘wrong’ choices. In effect, the implicit objective of these techniques is to deprive people of the capacity for making wrong choices. But if citizens are freed from the burden of distinguishing between right and wrong, then they cease to be choice-makers.

Proponents of choice architecture delude themselves into believing that their paternalism is libertarian, that their policies are neither authoritarian nor coercive. In truth, their objectives echo those that have traditionally been associated with totalitarian regimes. Recently, the UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg casually said that his government’s Nudge Unit could ‘change the way citizens think’. But since when has it been a democratic government’s brief to wage an ideological crusade aimed at altering its citizens’ thoughts? From this viewpoint, governing is not so much about realising people’s aspirations as it is about changing those aspirations so that they correspond to the worldview of the ‘choice architects’.

The project of remoulding the way that people think and act requires the erosion of people’s right to assent to, or reject, government policies. There has to be an implicit elimination of the two-way process of discussion between citizens and their rulers. The UK Cabinet Office paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy explains this in the following terms:

‘”Mindspace” effects depend at least partly on automatic influences on behaviour. This means that citizens may not fully realise that their behaviour is being changed – or, at least, how it is being changed. Therefore, there may be little opportunity for citizens to opt out or choose otherwise; the concept of “choice architecture” is less use here. Any action that may reduce the “right to be wrong” is likely to be controversial.’

The authors of Mindspace make it quite clear that some of their objectives will have to be achieved behind the backs of the electorate. Consequently, the public ‘may not fully realise’ what is happening, and of course there will no ‘opt-out’. In short, citizens have no choice but to acquiesce.

The presumption of a public that is powerless to determine its own future is central to the nudge industry, to the project of constraining people’s private preferences through behaviour management. The authors of Mindspace put forward a fantasy which says that government action can ‘augment freedom’ by acting as the ‘surrogate willpower’ of the populace. A government that substitutes itself for the exercise of human free will clearly has very little attachment to the idea of freedom. As the American political theorist Alan Wolfe warns us, ‘under the rules of liberal paternalism, all power goes to the choice architects’.

Four compelling reasons to reject nudging

There are three moral reasons and one practical reason for saying no to the new politics of nudging.

1) It denigrates moral independence

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the capacity to make choices about one’s life is central to the development of moral autonomy. In his famous statement What is Enlightenment? (1784), he argued:

‘It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.’

As far as Kant was concerned, it was preferable to make a wrong choice through the exercise of moral independence than to follow the ‘right’ advice. Why? Because through the exercise of moral autonomy people gain the experience that is necessary for maturity. An autonomous person is presumed to possess moral independence, in other words to act with moral responsibility. Through the exercise of autonomy, people can develop their personality through assuming responsibility for their lives. The cultivation of moral independence requires that people are free to deliberate and to come to their own conclusions about how best to live.

2) It erodes our capacity to make judgments of value

A central virtue for Aristotle was phronesis. Phronesis is difficult to translate into English. It means the capacity to exercise judgment in particular circumstances. According to Aristotle, making judgments and choices is the precondition for virtuous behaviour. So telling a colleague something they don’t want to hear may in some circumstances express the virtue of honesty and in other circumstances spring from the vice of boasting. It is in the very act of making moral choices that we develop the virtue of phronesis. That is why judgment cannot be left to choice architects. Phronesis is not something that can be outsourced to an expert – it is a virtue that we need to learn for ourselves, and it is possibly the single most important virtue when it comes to pursuing and conducting a good life.

3) It devalues the private sphere

Nudging encourages the colonisation of private life as our personal conduct becomes the target of the behaviour-management industry. One of the most significant gains of liberalisation in recent centuries was the development of the idea of the private sphere. The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke was a key architect of this idea. Locke claimed that government has no business controlling people’s beliefs and personal behaviour. He recognised that moral development required that people should have the freedom to behave in accordance with their beliefs and emotions. Sadly, today, individual behaviour is no longer treated as a private matter by government. And the more that governments become incapable of dealing with the challenging issues thrown up in the public sphere, the more they will opt for the quick-fix solution of manipulating individual behaviour instead.

4) It empties out public life

As tools of public policy, behaviour-management techniques rarely achieve positive results. Decades of experience show that the billions of pounds spent on parenting classes, sex and drugs education and early-intervention programmes fail to have the desired results. Why? Because social problems are only in part the outcome of individual behaviour.

Individual behaviour is mediated through cultural and moral norms and is influenced by social circumstances. And yet the raison d’être of nudging is to avoid engaging with the cultural, moral and political questions that dominate people’s lives. That is why one can predict with the utmost certainty that the Behavioural Insight Team’s plans for reducing teenage pregnancy rates, for example, will not work. The assumption that teenage mothers-to-be are akin to rats in a laboratory will founder on the rocks of cultural and social realities. However, provide teenagers with greater opportunities for a better life – in short, think about the bigger social picture – and then watch pregnancy rates drop.

The most regrettable consequence of the nudge industry is its stultifying effect on public debate and political life. No doubt its advocates mean well. But in encouraging the manipulation of people’s imaginations, they corrupt the very meaning of public life.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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