Nudging and human dignity

Defining ‘nudging’

We need to begin with a working definition of ‘nudging’. For the purposes of this discussion, I suggest, mostly following Luc Bovens, that an intervention constitutes a ‘nudge’ if it meets certain criteria: first, that it must not restrict choice – no options must be forbidden; second, that it must be in the interests of the person being nudged; third, that it involves a change in the architecture or environment in which the choice of the person being nudged is made; and, fourth, that it engages with the psychological insight that individuals may not, on occasion, act as wholly rational beings and therefore that public policy should take into account that individual decisions are made that result from ‘less than fully deliberative choice.’[1] We can add to this a fifth criterion: that the intervention does not significantly change the economic or other incentives of the person being nudged.

Introducing human dignity into the nudging debate

Debates about the ethics of nudging defined in this way seem paradoxical. Both supporters and opponents invoke the concept of ‘human dignity’ in support of their respective positions.[2] Given that the concept of human dignity is a foundation of international and European human rights, as well as for many systems of national constitutional rights, and that human dignity is extensively resorted to in contemporary political discourse, disagreement over nudging’s conformity with human dignity is critical.[3] In this brief discussion, my principal focus is on Cass Sunstein’s Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism.[4] This presents a proposal for nudging as an alternative to traditional regulatory mandates and economic incentive-based regulation. I shall suggest that nudging creates considerable tensions with thick conceptions of human dignity ...

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