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September 11, 2019: Individual Freedom Versus the Hidden Persuaders

Many policy experts support socially engineered nudging, that is, have governments use a set subtle behavior reward algorithms to control people’s behavior for socially desirable outcomes. Yet the utilitarian attractiveness of such an undertaking obscures the implications for individual freedom and human choice. Cultivated among others by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the idea of nudging is often seen as a way to produce positive social outcomes without the reliance on formal regulations and policing. Yet the fact that the process is often below the level of clear observability by the people being nudged raises important questions about the role of manipulation and, even more, potentially morally compromised governmental authority. Beyond the immediate philosophical and free will implications are the questions concerning what would happen when these techniques are taken to an extreme. There are many questions about the cost of dissent in today’s society as measured in ruined lives of those who fell out with social media activists. We must ask what it means to allow oneself to be “nudged” “for one’s own good”, i.e., how one is allowing oneself to be shaped by “soft” governmental and other programs. The implications for democratic practices, not to mention individual choices, are obvious.

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