Back in what now seems like a previous age, when David Cameron was prime minister, there was quite a lot of attention paid to his so-called ‘nudge unit’. Nudges, named after Thaler and Sunstein’s well-known book, are ways of getting people to make better choices by making these options more salient or less effortful for them. For example, you can (apparently) nudge people to save more for retirement by changing the default option for retirement plans: when the default is a higher proportion of income people save more than when it is lower. Similarly, you can increase the proportion of organ donors by making the system opt out rather than opt in, and you can nudge people to eat healthier by ensuring that fruit, and not crisps or chocolate, is at eye level in the queue for the register in the lunch room.
Sunstein and Thaler promote nudges as both respectful of individual autonomy and as welfare promoting. They advocate ‘libertarian paternalism’: paternalism, because nudges are ways of making it more likely that people act in their own interests, in cases in which they would not otherwise do so, but libertarian because nudges don’t prevent people from acting as they like. If you want to buy crisps and not fruit, go right ahead (the crisps are there if you look). If you want to opt out of being an organ donor, all you have to do is say so. No real constraints are imposed by nudges after all. But nudges are controversial nevertheless.
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.