Ilse Oosterlaken, one of the participants in our summer school, has blogged about some of the lectures and discussions that have happened so far.

One of Ilse’s blog posts reflects on a lecture by Andy Dobson on the ethics of “nudging” people towards sustainable behaviour – in other words, subtly influencing them to behave differently without them being aware of that influence.

Quote: “…One should distinguish between two levels of ethical deliberation. One is on that of the individual who has to decide whether to recycle an empty glass bottle and so on. The idea of nudging, as I understand it, is indeed that you get people to do the ‘right’ thing without them having to do too much thinking about it. But that does not automatically mean that ethical deliberation will disappear and/or become redundant at the societal level.

On the contrary, I think that nudging requires and presents opportunities for lots of such deliberation. What behavior is morally superior, which options do we leave out of the ‘choice architecture’, what are permissible ways of nudging people, where is the border between merely nudging and forcing people, when does government intervene too much in people’s behavior? All such questions can and should, it seem to me, be part and parcel of public debate about sustainability…” 

You can read more of this post on the 3TU.Centre blog.

Ilse has also written two other blog posts reflecting on ethical relativism and the dangers of a technocratic, managerial approach to sustainability.

Ilse works on the project “Technology & Human Development – A Capability Approach” at the 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology in the Netherlands. She’s also a visiting fellow at the STEPS Centre.


  1. I think if we really want to think responsibly about nudging, one should begin by being very precise on what nudging actually is. The definition put forward here, characterizing nudging as “subtly influencing them to behave differently without them being aware of that influence” is not quite adequate, since lots of nudges are transparent to us. This means that such a characterization send us off on a wrong track when thinking about the ethical dimensions of the nudge approach to behavior change.

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  2. In reply to Ilse’s blog: I see exactly what you are saying, but I think you’re underestimating the degree to which nudge ‘crowds out’ (that phrase again!) normative thinking. I agree that there’s nothing in principle that rules out ethical thinking before, alongside, or after a ‘nudge’, but even if it were part of the package (which it isn’t), there’s something rather odd about co-determining what we should be nudged about, and then playing no further part in policy development (to the extent of not knowing, perhaps, whether the policy was developed at all).

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