THR Web Features   /   March 6, 2014

The Debate Over Nudging

Brianne Alcala

Think of this post as a little nudge to reflect further on "nudging."

To wit: A recent post on this blog by Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, "Human Freedom and the Art of Nudging," sparked three thoughtful replies on the blog Political Theology, each representing a different philosophical camp.

In the original post, Mathewes and McRorie point out that "nudging," the idea of influencing your behavior by, say, placing the sugar-loaded cereal on a lower or higher shelf, is not  impeding your freedom, as some have contended. They write:

The issue, then, is not between freedom and tyranny. The issue is whether we will choose to consciously and deliberately shape those forces, or rather let them be determined by purely economic factors, as is the current status quo, such as in the case of the eye-level Kellogg’s cereal.... That is, the choice is not between a paternalistic “bureaucrat in Washington DC” and “you,” or between being “nudged” or manipulated by someone else or having your own innocent agency; the choice is between having the nudger be responsive to political leaders whom you put in power and the nudger be, say, some advertising executive over whose decisions you never have any say.

The responses on the Political Theology blog:

First, Hunter Baker and Micah Watson take the classical conservative viewpoint, with their post, "It Matters Who is Doing the Nudging."

Then, Roland Boer offers the Marxist stance in "Nudging: Can Reform Make a Better Society?"

Finally, Kevin Vallier chimes in with "Reasonable Libertarian Worries about Nudging."

Now, Mathewes and McRorie are back with two replies, "A Response to the Responses; or, a Note of Clarification about Nudges, Paternalism, and Agency" Part I and Part II.

The last word, at least for now:

The question before us now is not, “Should we engage in nudging on behalf of the public?” In light of the fact our lives are constantly being nudged—both by government and the very shape of the markets in which we swim every day—the question is instead, “How ought we to use the tools we have at hand to reflectively order our lives together so as to best promote the common good?” In this way, discussions over nudging and the practical impact of our public policies can bring to the fore fundamental questions about the nature of human freedom, and our common life together.