Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Waldron on Sunstein and the Specter of "Government House Utilitarianism"

At the Libertas Project workshop on economic freedom this past summer, one of our sessions took up the issues posed by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's Nudge, which is generating a cottage industry of commentary around issues of freedom, autonomy, and government paternalism. This interesting review at the NY Review of Books by Jeremy Waldron of two (!) new books by Sunstein nicely frames the debate.

Waldron points out in the review the danger in Sunstein's claim that "we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated" of what Bernard Williams memorably called "Government House Utilitarianism":

There are deeper questions, too, than these issues of trust and competence. As befits someone who was “regulation czar” in the Obama White House, Sunstein’s point of view is a rather lofty one and at times it has an uncomfortable affinity with what Bernard Williams once called “Government House utilitarianism." Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.

Here's an interesting question for Catholic legal theory: Does the Catholic tradition's robust commitment to the common good sit comfortably with Sunsteinian nudging of citizens by the state (one might even think that, pace Sunstein, nudging should include not merely health, safety, and economic choices but also moral virtue)? And how much does the answer to that question turn on accepting something like Sunstein's welfare maximization account, which is hardly what the tradition means by the common good? But if the political common good is merely instrumental to other human goods, one has reservations about the competence of the state in such matters, or one is concerned about the autonomy of our choices (a libertarian view one doesn't readily encounter in Catholic social thought), then perhaps the critics of nudging are right to worry about it. (See Waldron's comments about how Sunstein's equation of autonomy with welfare is "remarkably tone-deaf to concerns about autonomy").


Moreland, Michael | Permalink