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Peter Singer and Kym Peake explore the ethics of government behaviour change programs


World-renowned philosopher Professor Peter Singer has told an audience of more than 300 people in Melbourne that it is the obligation of governments to influence behaviour change in positive ways, as long as they do so ethically.

Presented by MSDI’s BehaviourWorks team in July 2018 in Melbourne, the event 'The Ethics of government behaviour change programs: A conversation with Peter Singer and Kym Peake', explored whether governments have the right, or the obligation, to change our behaviour for our own good and if so, asked what tools were appropriate.

The discussion was facilitated by Associate Professor Liam Smith, Director of BehaviourWorks Australia, who explained how techniques tested by behavioural scientists underpin campaigns encouraging us to improve our health, save the environment and make the world a safer and more equitable place. While they may be well-intentioned, the forum questioned whether there are ethical limits to using these behaviour change techniques.

Professor Singer said “governments have a duty to promote the wellbeing of the people over whom they are governing, provided they are not violating some sort of ethical constraints.”

The Secretary of Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services, Kym Peake, agreed “nudging” was an important role of government, as long as they applied “the evidence and ethical test” to their behaviour change methods.

“If we’re quite self-conscious about not just testing ‘is there evidence that it’s going to achieve the end result?’ but also ‘have we applied the ethical test to the means?’ then I’m really comfortable that there’s a rich vein of different types of techniques that we can use to influence behaviour change,” Ms Peake said.

Both speakers agreed that ethical tests for behaviour change tools should go beyond Cass Sunstein’s Bill of Rights for Nudging - a moral code for how we apply behaviour change.

As the co-founder of ‘modern nudges’, Sunstein has outlined five principles that aim to define the no-go areas for ethical government interventions, including that they be consistent with the values and interests of the audience; only be for “good”; must not violate individual rights; require transparency; and must not take things away from people without their consent.

Professor Singer described some of the principles as “too sweeping” while Ms Peake said there were some glaring omissions.

“A couple of things that don’t leap off the page is a really strong statement about not manipulating people, about the choice of intervention that you make. For example, is there an alternative that will achieve the same end… that doesn’t require nudging of people?” Ms Peake said.

“And the last one, which I feel really strongly about, is whether the nudge is going to adversely affect or stigmatise a part of the population, and if it is, then it wouldn’t pass my test.”

The event was held at The Hotel Windsor on July 18 and is part of Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s Changemaker Speaker Series.