Cass Sunstein’s Bill of Rights for Nudging

By Stephen Easton

Thursday July 19, 2018

The co-father of modern nudges, former White House official Cass Sunstein, has five principles that aim to define most of the no-go areas for ethical government interventions.

At the recent Behavioural Exchange conference in Sydney, he gave Australia’s public policy and service delivery experts an opportunity to pitch their thought-bubble nudges at one of the men who helped coin the term to describe government interventions that preserve individual choice, in contrast to mandates and bans.

Cass Sunstein. All images: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Are all those nudge ideas a good idea? Are they ethical? Sunstein told the attendees that you shouldn’t use nudges to trick people by exploiting their brain’s autopilot mode. Genuine nudges always allow people every chance to make an informed, deliberative choice. He offered five principles that should cover most of the no-go areas.

Sunstein believes these principles reflect at least some universality, based on values that are found across diverse nations through public approval surveys about nudges.

1. Nudges must be consistent with people’s values and interests.

“If they aren’t, there’s a serious problem. The government has a very heavy burden of justification.”

2. Nudges must be for legitimate ends

“No religious or political favouritism, and no efforts by an existing government for self-entrenchment.”

3. Nudges must not violate anyone’s individual rights.

Not even if they are really, really popular with the majority of people.

4. Nudges must be transparent

“Randomised controlled trials of course, can’t be fully transparent – you can’t tell someone in a randomised controlled trial, ‘Hey you’re in a randomised controlled trial right now.’

“But afterwards, transparency about what’s happened and an explanation is something that citizens are owed.”

As with all scientific trials, this requires obvious discretion depending on what the intervention is, as to whether there is an ethical issue of testing it on people without their explicit knowledge.

5. Nudges ought not to take things from people without their consent

“People … get their backs up when they are automatically enrolled in a program, for example, by which some of their money is going, even to a charity they like.”

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