Rice Unconventional Wisdom

Choice, manipulation and wellbeing: On the nature and ethical significance of nudging, February 27, 2017, 4:30 PM - 5:30 PM

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Kerry Vaughan
Doctoral Candidate

Humanities Building

Recent work in behavioral economics has led to startling conclusions about the limits of human rationality. Contrary to the rational maximizer of utility assumed by traditional economics, actual decision makers make choices that are inconsistent with their own ends and are powerfully influenced by the context in which decisions are presented. Recently, some writers have argued that we ought to use the power of decision making context to offset the inconsistent choice phenomenon. Positions of this kind go alternatively under the banners of “Libertarian Paternalism,” “Choice Architecture,” and “Nudging.” The central idea is that people who shape the context of choices (Choice Architects) should opt to frame choices so all choices remain available (Libertarianism), but should ensure that the choosers are more likely (Nudged) to make choices that make them better off (Paternalism). Despite an explosion in discussion of and use of nudges, philosophers and ethicists have in large part been missing from the conversation. The discussion that has taken place among philosophers has mostly been about whether there is something objectionable about nudges in general. However, as I will argue later in the dissertation, this discussion is of limited use because nudges vary widely in their ethical features. This dissertation advances in five chapters. In chapter 1 I discuss what precisely a nudge is and what it is not. In chapter two I outline a three-factor model for analyzing whether a nudge is morally acceptable. In chapter three I discuss the question of when a nudge makes a chooser better off. I finally defend a new version of the informed desire account which avoids difficulties with the standard informed desire account in the literature. In chapter four I discuss the question of when a nudge is the best available choice, comparing it to rational persuasion, libertarianism and paternalism as possible alternatives. Finally in chapter 5 I discuss two real world applications of the nudging and how the ideas developed elsewhere in the dissertation are used to evaluate these nudges.