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A conversation on the ethics of government behaviour change programs

With the eminent philosopher, Peter Singer, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kym Peake

The field of behavioural science and behaviour change in general is certainly ‘trending’, with more than 350 people coming together in Melbourne on 18 July for a conversation on the ethics of government behaviour change programs with the world-renowned philosopher, Peter Singer, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kym Peake.
Hosted by the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, the event was MC’d by BehaviourWorks’ Director, Liam Smith, who began by asking the pair what got them interested in behaviour change in the first place.
Kym said that her work in government is influenced by two ideas: 1, helping people develop and realise capabilities and build agency in their lives, and 2, applying systems thinking to government problems and understanding that human behaviour lies at the intersection of these complex ecosystems.
As a philosopher, Peter is interested in how we should live our lives and contribute to society (e.g., assisting those who are less fortunate), but he said it was not enough to present people with rational arguments. To get people to do things, we need behaviour change.
Right or obligation?
The conversation moved on to the gnarly question of whether governments had the right – or an obligation – to change people’s behaviour for their own good.
Both speakers agreed that governments have a duty to promote the well-being and happiness of the population (beyond a charter or a Bill of Rights) and that a “more good than harm” code my be used.
Kym said that there were four key areas where behaviour change is used in government:
1: getting people to comply with rules,
2: getting them to use government tools,
3: getting various actors/service providers to work together and
4: promoting good citizenship.
Governments are also taking a leadership position on certain issues such as family violence and gender equality.
Evidence-based decision-making
On whether governments needed to act more on research-based evidence, Kym said that it was not always sufficient to make change, referring again to the issue of family violence. Despite knowing how many women are killed each year, the evidence base is not enough to build an emotional connection with the community. This was more likely to come from public stories.
Peter noted that evidence may be more important in the context of health (e.g., tobacco packaging) versus other causes, such as linking eating red meat to environmental sustainability.
The conversation then moved to trade-offs in government with regard to budgets and the discretionary dollar.
Kym emphasised the importance of transparency and the need to avoid stigmatising or putting particular groups at a disadvantage.
Peter distinguished between the Rawlsian view (a max-min approach focused on raising the minimum level of society) and the utilitarian view (maximising the overall benefit to society).
Campaigns that go too far
The speakers then discussed the ethics of a series of specific behaviour change campaigns; some of which veered towards manipulation.
Kym noted that organisations don’t need to tell mistruths when there are plenty of truthful stories to be told and that trust in government was paramount. At various points, she also emphasised her preference for not making moral judgements about a particular group of people as a vehicle to behaviour change, noting that this can be a slippery slope.

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A Bill of Nudge Rights?
The final discussion focused on Cass Sunstein’s Bill of Rights for Nudging (Cass is a former White House official the co-founder of modern nudge) as a moral code for how we apply behaviour change.
Peter agreed that the statements were going in the right direction, with qualifications. He pointed out where they may be too sweeping (e.g., what do we mean by “consistent with people’s values/interests” since values/interests change, rights can’t always be absolute, governments take things away from people all the time without their consent).
Kym emphasised the need to avoid manipulation of people and the importance of distributive justice in that nudges should not be used to take things away from stigmatised or vulnerable groups of people.
Audience engagement
The audience also got in on the conversation, with the event trending on Twitter (#ethicsgovchange).
A full video of the event can be found here.