The Ethics of Nudging

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Citation: Cass Sunstein (Nov 10, 2014) The Ethics of Nudging. SSRN (RSS)

doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2526341


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), paternalism (RSS), civic values (RSS), nudge (RSS), sunstein (RSS), ethics (RSS), autonomy (RSS), coercion (RSS), dignity (RSS), manipulation (RSS), bias (RSS), cognitive bias (RSS), behavioral economics (RSS), policy (RSS)


In the Ethics of Nudging, Cass Sunstein summarizes ethical critiques of the Nudge approach, where a state attempts to "steer people in particular directions but that also allow them to go their own way." Sunstein offers rebuttals of these critiques, exploring areas where those critiques might meaningfully guide nudge practitioners.

Sunstein, who along with others has written extensively about the idea of Nudges [1][2][3], defines them broadly as any intervention (a reminder, a GPS route, a default rule) that doesn't "impose significant material incentives... to count as such, a nudge must fully preserve freedom of choice" (unlike jail, subsidies, tax). He then defines choice architecture as the background of someone's decision. Sunstein argues that "even if the layout of a department store is a result of chance... it will have consequences for what people select." For Sunstein, scarcity of attention is also important: people are less likely to carry out complex tasks than simple ones.

Is there a Valid Ethical Objection to Nudges?

Starting with paragraph 7, Sunstein mentions critiques of nudge theory based on (1) welfare, (2) autonomy, (3) dignity, and (4) self-government. He argues that these concerns don't offer a valid ethical objection to the notion of nudges as an idea, since choice architecture is part of nature: "Weather is itself a form of choice architecture, because it influences what people decide. Human beings cannot live without some weather. Nature nudges" (paragraph 8).

To those who would critique the goal-oriented focus of nudges in favor of spontaneous orders [4], invisible hands [5], and randomness, Sunstein asks, "What is so good about randomness?" and argues that while "a malevolent choice architect... could produce a great deal of harm," the "most serious harms tend to come from mandates and bans" -- which nudge is designed to avoid.

Sunstein grounds his response to objections by pointing out the diversity of potential uses of nudging, from finance to health to energy. He also describes the wide scope of nudging across behavioral science, including fast and slow thinking[6]. Nudges could address behavioral biases, increase navigability. This diversity of use, context, and theory--encompassing nearly all of behavioural economics--implies Sunstein, puts the approach beyond question; critics should instead question particular nudges.

How might we question individual nudges? Citizens might be nudged to vote in a particular way; warnings might incite fear or hatred towards a minority; social norms might encourage people to be unhealthy; people might be nudged towards violence; and people might be drawn into decisions when they would prefer to remain undecided. Transparency, argues Sunstein, is a necessary but insufficient answer to these concerns and can help preventing or correcting harmful nudges.

Good nudges, argues Sunstein, "influence choices in a way that makes choosers better off, as judged by themselves. This works in many cases, but it runs into problems in cases of self-control problems like addiction. Another problem is the possibility that people may not always be making fully rational decisions. While education might be helpful in some cases, Sunstein argues that not all problems can be solved by "a course in... statistics or finance," and that more nudging will be necessary.

Seven Objections to Nudging

Sunstein addresses major objections to Nudges:


Some see nudges as "libertarian paternalism." Sunstein argues that nudging is a distinctive form of paternalism because it "avoids coercion or material incentives" and "does not attempt to question or alter people's ends." Sunstein uses the GPS example here as an example that preserve's people's ends. Sunstein also tries to untangle means from ends by arguing that they need to be described at an appropriate level of abstraction. When talking about a brownie in the context of weight loss, the brownie cannot be considered an end. The true end is weight loss. Identifying a very abstract end like "having a good life" will "be disregarding what really matters to them." Ultimately, Sunstein argues that forms of "paternalism, hard or soft, should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."


Maybe nudges "intrude on autonomy?" (paragraph 49) Sunstein argues that since "nature nudges," this question cannot be asked of all nudges -- only particular ones. Next, he argues that "autonomy requires informed choices, and many nudges are specifically designed to ensure that choices are informed." By improving efficiency of choices, nudges help people put time into things they really value. Sunstein does admit that "default rules might intrude on autonomy," since "people might not reject harmful defaults."


Sunstein argues that "if choice architects coerce people, they are no longer merely nudging."


Might nudges, such as an advertisement discouraging people from smoking, is "seen as an offense of dignity - as a way of treating smokers disrespectfully. A welfarist might be willing to support the emotional appeal... if it saves a significant number of lives." What if you don't accept that calculation? Sunstein responds that you can only object to a particular nudge, not to nudging as a whole. We might not object to default cell phone plans or employer retirement plans, but we might object to a default meal at a restaurant or a default government exercise plan.


Manipulation, as defined by Sunstein, "exists when someone tries to alter people's behavior in a covert way, by deceiving them about, or hiding, or even failing to disclose, a relevant part of the interaction." Sunstein's examples include lies, lack of transparency, lack of appeal to conscious deliberation, and subliminal advertising. Referring to Sarah Conly's work on paternalism[7], Sunstein lists cases where choice architects 'appeal to [people's] irrationality by carefully selecting graphics, framing messages, elicit fears, adjust language, and order options to improve the likelihood of certain actions. In these cases, transparency may not address concerns about manipulation.

Alongside Sunstein's constant refrain that the diversity of nudges shields them from criticism as a group, one answer is that we could consent to being manipulated. Another answer is that in cases like smoking, there is a long history of harmful manipulation that can only be fought with more manipulation by the state. Sunstein also answers that if we don't accuse friends or our personal doctor of manipulation when they give us feedback through body language, why would we accuse the government of it? Finally, Sunstein argues that there are degrees of manipulation; we might object to deception but accept emotional appears.


If we're surrounded by nudges, might we lose our ability to choose? Sunstein argues that most nudges-- information and reminders-- "exercise the choice-making muscle." This critique is more valid for default rules: "If people are defaulted into certain outcomes, they do not add to their stock of knowledge, and that may be a significant lost opportunity." Sunstein argues that choice architects should explore "whether it is valuable... for choosers to acquire a stock of knowledge."

Biased Officials

Since choice architects are themselves subject to biases, they might, along with the public, be mistaken. Sunstein argues that "one reason for nudges, as opposed to mandates and bans, is that choice architects may err." By leaving the public with options, nudging still offers the public a chance to reject defaults.

Ongoing Concerns

Sunstein concludes with a set of ongoing concerns connected with empirical findings:

  • Does transparency about nudging change people's behavior? Sunstein shares research that points in both ways; people told about nudging don't change their behaviour, but some kinds of warnings do backfire.
  • How do nudges relate to politics? Sunstein cites Tennenbaum et al,[8], who argue that "people find nudges more ethically problematic when they are applied to policy objectives they oppose, or when applied by policymakers they oppose."
  • Do people prefer System 2 (deliberative) or System 1 (unconscious) nudges? Sunstein points to research that points in both directions, depending on whether people see themselves as needing help with a self control problem.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

In this article, Sunstein sets out to defend the idea of nudging from a wide range of critics, mostly frequently by claiming that nudging is already in nature, and that the set of practices is too broad to be critiqued as a whole. I find that refrain within the article to be unsatisfying, since Sunstein often uses it to wave away interesting details. I would have loved to see him engage enthusiastically with the ethical challenges in a way that could guide practitioners and policymakers, but maybe I'm expecting too much from an article that is focused on defense rather than exposition. Natematias (talk) 16:58, 9 February 2015 (UTC)

When Sunstein does engage with details, he offers very helpful links across major objections to the nudge approach, political theory, real/hypothetical examples of nudges, and some of the relevant experimental evidence at play. If you're interested in objections to the nudge approach, this is an excellent place to find a bibliography.


  1. Jolls, Christine. Sunstein, Cass R. Thaler, Richard. "A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics." Stanford Law Review, vol 50. no 5. May 1998
  2. Thaler, Richard. Sunstein, Cass. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press (2008).
  3. Sunstein, Cass. Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice. Oxford University Press (2015)
  4. Wikipedia. spontaneous orders
  5. Wikipedia. invisible hands
  6. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)
  7. Conly, Sarah. Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, Cambridge University Press (2013)a
  8. Tannenbaum, David. Fox, Craig. Rogers, Todd. On the Misplaced politics of behavioral policy interventions. Unpublished manuscript.