Paternalism, Nudging and the Digital Sphere

Conveners: Johannes Drerup (University of Koblenz-Landau), Sebastian Stein and Thomas Grote (both University of Tübingen)

Invited speakers:

Emma Bullock (Central European University Budapest)

Kalle Grill (Umea University)

Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (University of London)

Norbert Paulo (University of Salzburg)

Information technologies (broadly construed) provide corporations and governmental institutions with tools that enable them to push the behavior of their citizens/users into what are considered “right directions”. For example, E-health-applications or smart homes might promote healthier or more sustainable lifestyles while the Chinese government currently experiments with implementing the so called digitally administered ‘Social Credit System’ with the aim of improving behavioral regulation of both, their citizens and businesses. In a similar vein, the information-architecture of e.g. Google`s search algorithms or of social media sites, such as Facebook, are assumed to influence the formation of political opinions (think of ‘group-polarization’ as a negative example).

New information technologies might also change the way in which paternalistically motivated interferences are induced. In this context, the concept of ‘nudging’ has come to increased prominence in public policy circles ever since the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Richard Thaler in 2017. In a nutshell, ‘nudging’ amounts to the attempt to influence a person`s behavior by altering a given choice-architecture in a way that exploits basic cognitive biases. And new information technologies allow for a way more potent kind of nudges: by means of big data analysis, corporations or governmental institutions are able to obtain a nearly exhaustive set of information about a particular person and so nudges can be more efficiently customized. Furthermore, the effectiveness of a particular choice-architecture can be easily tracked and dynamically adjusted, as the relevant algorithm learns from its user`s behavior.

For political theorists and ethicists, paternalism in the digital sphere raises a plethora of questions. These include: “What kind of paternalistically motivated interferences are justified on moral and political grounds? How can we ensure that a digital nudge still qualifies as an instance of libertarian paternalism? When, if ever, are corporations warranted to exhibit paternalistically justified behavior? How should conflicts of interest between different paternalistic or non-paternalistic stakeholders be evaluated and resolved (such as between corporations and states)? Are ‘autonomy’ or ‘informed consent’ ethical and political principles that still apply to behavior in the new digital sphere? What are the challenges that digital paternalism poses for civic education (e.g., debates about digital literacy) and for the ethos of democratic debate more generally (e.g., debates about echo chambers; hate speech)?”

The abovementioned questions are far from being exhaustive. For the purposes of our workshop, we are seeking a wide range of contributions that discuss topics related to digital paternalism either on the institutional or the moral psychological level. Please send an abstract (approx. 750 words) to thomas.grote@uni-tuebingen.de until 23.05.2018. The abstract should clearly indicate the claims and arguments of the author.