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Success conditions for nudges: a methodological critique of libertarian paternalism


This paper provides a methodological analysis of Libertarian Paternalism, as put forward in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Yale University Press, 2008). Libertarian Paternalism aims to use the accumulated findings of behavioural economics in order to assist decision-makers to make better choices. The philosophical debate about this proposal has focused on normative issues with regards to this proposal. This paper analyses Libertarian Paternalism descriptively and points out four methodological conditions for successful Nudges. On that basis, a methodological critique of Libertarian Paternalism is mounted: the success conditions suggest that Nudges might be even harder to implement and to justify than commonly assumed in the philosophical debate.

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  1. Indeed, the dual process framework does not directly compete with more detailed accounts of particular kinds of deviations from perfect rationality (such as Anslie’s (1992; 2001) multiple-self models to explain hyperbolic discounting).

  2. One might argue that this can also be characterised as ApRq, yet since there might be greater resistance on part of the agent, this could also result in A?Rq. Hence it seems apt to characterise the Nudge position as one that is marked by conflict.

  3. Indeed, there is a lot of debate about the adequacy of dual process frameworks (for an overview, see the outline of shortcomings in Sahlin et al. (2010:135ff.)).


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Many thanks to Luc Bovens, Foad Dizadji-Bahmani, Michiru Nagatsu, Alice Obrecht, Julian Reiss, Ingrid Robeyns, David Teira, and two anonymous reviewers of European Journal for Philosophy of Science for very helpful comments on previous versions of this article. I also thank audiences at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE) at Erasmus University Rotterdam for their feedback.

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Correspondence to Conrad Heilmann.

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Heilmann, C. Success conditions for nudges: a methodological critique of libertarian paternalism. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 4, 75–94 (2014).

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  • Behavioural economics
  • Nudge
  • Libertarian paternalism
  • Dual process