Bart Engelen (Tilburg): “Nudging and Rationality”

The literature on nudging has rekindled normative and conceptual debates surrounding both the aims liberal and democratic governments can aim for and the means they can employ. An oft-heard criticism is that nudging governments, by exploiting people’s psychological mechanisms, manipulate them and insufficiently respect their rational decision-making capacities. Bypassing and/or perverting people’s rational capacities, nudges are said to undermine agency. In this paper, I analyze and deflate these criticisms. After disentangling the different conceptions of rationality that pervade the arguments of both nudging enthusiasts and critics, I critically assess to what extent different nudging techniques can be said to undermine, pervert, bypass or strengthen people’s rationality in the different meanings of that notion. Only in a limited set of cases, I will argue, does it make sense to criticize nudges for making people less rational than they are, can and should be. Crucial in this respect will be the distinction between (different versions of) outcome-rationality and process-rationality.

Bart Engelen is assistant professor at the Tilburg Centre for Logic, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science and currently a visiting researcher at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science [CPNSS].