Even if you – at least for the sake of the argument – admit us the practical value of monitoring to obtain knowledge and thus give up on well-exercised arguments for the inbreachable privacy rights of people, there is still a question of ‘elitist’ ethics: “What allows you or your client” you might ask, “to decide what people ‘ought’ to do in your so called behavioral engineering approach?” That is, you might admit us the right to act ‘bigbrother’ to gain knowledge but not a normative ‘bigmother’ to achieve a certain behavior. That is a perfectly legitimate question. Let us deal with it once and for all.
In their book Nudge – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness Thaler and Sunstein discuss this issue and argue at length for the legitimacy of ‘paternalism’. As long as it is liberitarian paternalisme leaving agents with a free choice. This basically means lowering the cost (mentally, cognitively, resource-wise) of making the ‘right’ choice not coercively forcing anyone. The basic argument is that humans – as opposed to the theoretical construct homo economicus - quite frequently make bad choices for a number of reasons. As such, humans needs little ‘nudges’ to make the right choices faced with complexity and insufficient information.
But what is our reason in /KL7? They are very different in origin but univocal in consequence: Humans simply need help to make the right choices in a lot of contexts as we tend to act against our own long term interests. The last couple of hundred years of thinking has been one long dethronement of human rationality. Let us have a look at some of the reasons for questioning mans ‘rationality’:
- Philosophical: Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx seriously questioned the merits of our explicit motives. Nietzsche was probably most brutal to our self-understanding when he claimed that all rationality is covered up irrationality: The true boss running the show is our hidden drives.
- Cognitive: Cognitive science has amply demonstrated how bodily emotions and basically animal drives stands for a majority of actions and decisions.
- Neurological: According to neurology rationality – or the frontal lobes in this terminology – can at best ‘orchestrate’ the symphony of impulses rather than originate or control them.
- Biological: From biology we know how we are e.g. prone to eat as much sugar and fat as we can come across since such energy-rich nutritions are rare in nature. But we all know how cheap and available sugar and fat are in our modern world without our spontaneous reaction adapting.
- Sociological: Humans are embedded in a social and cultural context often blurring the motivation and thus ‘rationality’ of personal choice.
- Economical: Homo economicus, the notion of the perfectly rational, optimizing agent suffers badly in the famous ‘ultimatum game’ experiment. Emotions and our sense of fairness simply trumps rationality when it comes to accept an haphazardly uneven distribution of means: You rather have nothing than only $10 out of $100 if your partner takes the other $90.
- Branding: We know that some of the most adored brands in this world act as filters of complexity by making a lot of choices on behalf of the customers. Apple, BMW, Google anyone? In design it is called minimalism, in branding identity and in everyday lingo we call it focus. Most people love brands preciselt for the choices they make on their behalf. This is more about emotional coupling than rationality. Add to this religion as an existential coupling that is also about narrowing the window of available actions and interpretations.
- Rational impotence: We have worked long enough with health, traffic, smoking etc. campaigns to know that ‘what I ought to’ is totally decoupled from ‘what I will actually do’. If you conducted a multiple choice test with smokers, alcoholics or obese they would probably have most facts relating to their vice right. But sine this ‘rational’ knowledge is decoupled from emotionally based motivation changed behavior remains a fatamorgana.
- Self-inspection: Last but not least; we know ourselves and our rational shortcomings too well. It is only too human. And just like you adjust for physical dysfunctions we think it is perfectly empathetic and ethic to help people behave constructively. As long as it’s not against their or others own long term interests (as deemed by themselves).