Bioethics Blogs

Behavioral Science, Public Policy, Ethics

The President of the United States has issued an executive order (see here) – government agencies are to use ‘insights’ from behavioral sciences to better serve the American people.

In my view this is a good thing. Science is our friend. Obama’s heart is in the right place. Nonetheless, the order raises a number of ethical and practical issues.

The term ‘behavioral sciences’ is a little broad. However, the executive order mentions the behavioral economics and psychology of decision making as an example of what is in mind. This indicates that what this order is really about is the implementation of ‘nudge’ policies. Some have objected to such policies on the grounds that they violate autonomy or dignity in some way. Perhaps that is right, although it appears to depend on the case at hand. As Cass Sunstein – who has been influential for the Obama administration’s stance on the importance of behavioural science – has pointed out, nudges are inevitable in policy making. A failure to take this into account ensures that the nudges in play will be unintentional rather than intentional. Further, considerations of welfare, autonomy, and fairness may very well support nudge policies in many instances.

This will depend heavily on the effectiveness of the nudge policy, which itself depends in part on the quality of the behavioral science. Given recent evidence that many results from experimental and social psychology fail to replicate, there might be reason to worry here. The executive order does not define what counts as an ‘insight’ from behavioral science.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.