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Can materialist theories help us learn to do the right thing?

From New Scientist via Slate (November 12, 2011), we hear the welcome quiet digging noise of thoughtful probing – where we might have expected sound of tub thumping: In “Nudge No More: Benevolent meddling won’t help us make good decisions,” Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi offer a critique of an influential new craze in government: “Nudge” or benevolent paternalism: For example, “opt out” instead of “opt inm in matters such as pension contributions and organ donation:

“Nudging” is appealing because it provides many of the benefits of top-down regulation while avoiding many of the drawbacks. Bureaucrats and leaders of organizations can guide choices without dictating them. Thaler and Sunstein call the approach “libertarian paternalism”: It lets people “decide” what they want to do, while guiding them in the “right” direction.

Among other problems, there is this:

This points to the key problem with “nudge”-style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.

We’d add two things: The most dangerous temptation of power is the temptation to simply compel people to behave wisely and virtuously – even if one does happen to be right on the evidence. Also, such compulsion, whether nudge or shove, forms a deadly assault on actual wisdom and virtue which can only be acquired through the experience of making choices and judgements for oneself.

We’ve been told that kind-hearted people who try to help baby birds out of their eggs or butterflies out of their chrysalises are actually harming them because these living creatures need the workout. So do people’s characters.

See also: What happens when we apply evolutionary psychology and allied materialist theories to economics?

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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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One Response to Can materialist theories help us learn to do the right thing?

  1. “The most dangerous temptation of power is the temptation to simply compel people to behave wisely and virtuously – even if one does happen to be right on the evidence.”

    Does this comment extend to compelling women to have a baby they don’t want?

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