Most moral objections to nudging–the practice of altering choice environments in order to subconsciously steer behavior–have been grounded in the value of personal autonomy. The autonomy of the nudged are claimed to be undermined because the control individuals have over their evaluations, deliberations and decision-making is effectively reduced, if not fully bypassed. More so, nudging seems autonomy-threatening because the architects look to supplant the wills of their targets with their own.

When nudging was first discussed by its main proponents Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008, it was proposed as an innovative supplement to government policy-making. In response, most of the autonomy-related objections focused on the paternalism of governments carrying out the nudging. Surprisingly, few have paid much attention to similar forms of influences in the market setting–behavioral techniques used in advertising, pricing, and other market interactions. I claim the standard autonomy-based objections against nudging raise more worries about current market practices than emerging and prospective policy practices.

There are two main reasons why market influences are more autonomy-threatening in comparative terms. First, the standard version of government nudging is conceived as including only those practices that benefit the targeted individuals by their own standards and are sufficiently mild to be resisted by them. While only the second condition would be regarded as autonomy-preserving on standard accounts, government nudges would likely be more easily tolerated if they, at least, satisfied the first.

But market influencing is constrained by neither of these conditions. Of course, marketeers will often be smart to invest efforts into gauging the deep-seated preferences of their customers, and influence them accordingly. But if the profit incentive is instead identified in exploiting customer weaknesses, rather than overcoming them, then this may well determine the direction of the influence. Similarly, the mildness of the marketeer’s influences will often depend on a number of changing circumstances, such as how mild the competitors’ influences are, or how likely it is that the marketeer will be called out for its trickery. In short, market influences are not constrained by principles, but only by profit-related contingencies.

Second, Coons and Weber (2013) have raised worries that an excessive amount of government influence could make it difficult for individuals to navigate the behavioral landscape. Unsurprisingly, the worry should be more considerable for market influences. Although we lack the empirical details about whether and how exactly individuals may come to be overwhelmed by behavioral influences, the market will be the likeliest setting in which this would occur. Market settings are flooded in influences for several reasons. One is that competitors try to outperform each other in producing the most effective influences. Another is that opportunities for influence grow with the advancement of new communicative channels. Conversely, government nudges will often be thwarted by institutional procedures and regulations.

Some claim there are reasons to believe governments are in fact the worse of the pair. Mark White (2013) argues that it is the government’s presumptuous attitude towards citizens’ values that makes government nudging more objectionable. But it is not obvious why steering people with such a presumptuous attitude would be more objectionable on autonomy grounds than influencing them indifferently to their value sets and with only personal gain in mind.

White also suggests we enter the market setting with clear expectations of being influenced by marketeers in all ways available to them. But it is unclear whether our expectations about the current market settings ought to be normatively informative. Moreover, it is questionable that a general expectation would justify the use of behavioral influences in a market setting. Interestingly, Luc Bovens (2009) claimed such ‘type transparency’ would not be sufficient to justify government nudges.

Finally, some will undoubtedly suggest the excessive influencers will be punished by healthy market competition. The suggestion is made on an unfounded assumption that consumers will not only spot the covert influence, but also recognize it as decisive in producing their action. I believe both tasks will often be undermined by an undue optimism of individuals that they are immune to some behavioral influences (like those in advertising), or at least significantly more resistant than others. It will take guts to admit to others and to ourselves that this is not the case.

Why, then, have philosophers been (seemingly) unperturbed by the more threatening autonomy-related properties of market influences? An underestimation of their effects is certainly one reason. In addition, we find it hard to conceive where the argument takes us. Can we even imagine markets with such influences kept at a minimum? And if we can’t, does such an argument lead us to rejecting the market? Are such influences to some extent inevitable in the exchange of goods? Without a doubt, the difficulty of these questions contributes to a philosophical reluctance. Nevertheless, the gravity of market influences for autonomy considerations would make it seem that these questions are next in line.

Viktor Ivanković

Viktor is a PhD student in the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations, with a specialization in Political Theory, at Central European University, Budapest. He is currently working on his thesis project focusing on the normative foundations of a behaviorally-enhanced liberal democracy.