The ethics of nudges

Nudges are soft interventions designed to influence people’s choices in desired directions while leaving them the choice to do otherwise. These interventions exploit (i.e. eliminate, bypass or elicit) fast automatic and often unconscious decision-making pathways, such as risk aversion, compliance to authority, tendency to stick to default options, or hyperbolic discounting. For example, the risk aversion bias leads patients to underestimate the gains of a drug compared to its possible side-effects. This reasoning failure may be corrected by using a framing nudge, that is, by presenting medical information so as to emphasize the risks associated to non-consumption of the drug.

Most nudging interventions can be applied with little administrative difficulties, and since they preserve freedom of choice, they are often seen as ethical ways to fix problems. Therefore, nudges are increasingly considered as attractive solutions by policy-makers in all sorts of domains.

However, despite their attractive features, nudges may raise difficulties. First, due to their variety and the variety of their application, there is often unclear evidence of the efficiency of particular nudges. Second, while some nudges seem benign, other raise serious ethical concerns. The default organ donation policy discussed and rejected by Swiss politicians in 2015 is an illustration. One persistent question is the extent to which nudges are manipulative and thereby a treat to autonomous decision-making.

Ethical issues raised by the use of nudges have been extensively discussed in moral philosophy circles, but little work has been done in practical ethics. Can we transpose relevant philosophical considerations into workable evaluation procedures that policy-makers could use ahead of their decisions do apply a nudge?

We aim at bridging the gap between theory and practice. Our goal is to help policy-makers (in particular decision-makers in the health care system) to develop effective and ethically acceptable nudging intervention.

This project is conducted by Christine Clavien