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The ethics of Nudges in the time of coronavirus

In the introduction of the book “Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness”, Richard Thaler and Carl Sunstein tell the story of Carolyn, a director who runs experiments in school cafeterias whether the way the food is displayed influence children in healthier choices. At the launch of the book in 2008, it was a fictional story, but today it could be real because countless health policies were inspired by this theory based on Behavioral Economics.

Nudges are aspects of the choice architecture that alter people’s behavior without imposing prohibitions or significantly interfering with their economic incentives. To be classified as such it has to be easy and cheap to avoid, as it does not imply obligations. For example, placing fruit on the shelf at eye level count as a nudge, prohibiting junk food does not (THALER, 2009).

Nevertheless, is it ethical to make people act in a way they would not have done without the intervention? For some, this is manipulation, and, in the case of public policies, it would be an abuse of power. In short, nudging can conflict with central moral values ​​such as freedom, autonomy, respect and dignity (SCHMIDT; ENGELEN, 2019) and, for this reason, it has raised questions about ethical aspects.

Sunstein (2015) defends that nudges are ethical because they aim at well-being or some other value. And it is based on the consequentialist logic that several policies for controlling coronavirus pandemic have been justified. Among them, we observed signs painted on the floor to mark the distance in lines, alcohol gel at the entrance to remembering people to sanitize hands and even social pressure is being used as an incentive to wear masks in public places.

Despite some good results, it has not yet been fully understood how this virus behaves and what is the real relationship of these practices in controlling the disease. In this regard, more than ever, it is important to reflect on the well-being as an argument to justify interventions in choices architecture. If understanding what is best for the other has always been a problem, how to do it while we still don’t know what we need about the COVID-19?

In crisis and uncertainty, we may realize how many people fall into a herd effect and even take medicine for worms with no proven effectiveness against the virus just because everyone is taking it. Without reflection, we continue giving reasons for nudges to be created in order to “help” people to make “good decisions” in situations that they could not do “better” alone.

Unfortunately, I believe that’s a long way off until we find out to what extent the nudge policies during the pandemic are justified in the consequentialist ethics model or if their popularization is just a search for solutions which seeks to demonstrate that something is being done. In the meantime, we have excellent cases for discussing nudge ethics.


SCHMIDT, Andreas T.; ENGELEN, Bart. The ethics of nudging: An overview. Philosophy compass. vol. 15, n. 4, p. 1-13, Apr-2020.

SUNSTEINS, Cass R. The ethics of nudging. Yale Journal on Regulation. vol. 32, p. 414-4502015.

THALER, Richard H. SUNSTEIN, Cass R. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. 2. Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

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