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A ‘Nudge’ for Public Health Ethics: Libertarian Paternalism as a Framework for Ethical Analysis of Public Health Interventions?

Economics, Health, ethics, nudge

Abstract

Is it possible to interfere with individual decision-making while preserving freedom of choice? The purpose of this article is to assess whether ‘libertarian paternalism’, a set of political and ethical principles derived from the observations of behavioural sciences, can form the basis of a viable framework for the ethical analysis of public health interventions. First, the article situates libertarian libertarianism within the broader context of the law and economics movement. The main tenets of the approach are then presented and particular attention is given to its operationalization through the notion of a ‘nudge’. Essentially, a ‘nudge’ consists in an intervention, which aims to suggest one choice over another by gently steering individual choices in welfare-enhancing directions yet without imposing any significant limit on available choices. Finally, the article concludes that, while it fails as an overreaching framework of ethical analysis, libertarian paternalism nonetheless constitutes a valuable addition to the conceptual toolbox of public health ethics.

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