Seminar: Prof Richard Ashcroft, "Behaviour change: moving the debate on from coercion"

Past Event

31 January 2012, 3:00pm - 4:30pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

This seminar series is hosted by the Future of Humanity Institute and the Institute for Science and Ethics

Speaker: Professor Richard Ashcroft, Department of Law, Queen Mary, University of London

Respondent: Dr Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director and Senior James Martin Fellow, Institute for Science and Ethics

Abstract: Much ink has been spilt over the past couple of years on the ethics of behaviour change as a strategy in public health and social policy. Two texts have been of central importance in this debate: Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’s report on public health. The Nuffield Council concentrate on a fairly standard liberal political philosophy, oriented around autonomy. Their main concern seems to be how to promote public health while minimally infringing personal autonomy. Departures from this minimal infringement principle are justified either by appeal to a version of Mill’s harm principle, or by pointing to situations in which autonomy breaks down due to cognitive biases. This is where Nudge enters the debate. Nudge is relatively sophisticated in acknowledging that while psychological autonomy is a fairly fragile concept, in light of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience, moral and political autonomy remain important normative standards.
An unfortunate feature of the moral debates about behaviour change is that notwithstanding the Nuffield and Nudge caveats about psychological and indeed social autonomy, the moral debates concentrate on some – in my view – quite marginal worries about the overbearing of the autonomous will through coercion and manipulation. There are legitimate questions to ask about moral autonomy and behaviour change: these have to do with moral character, reflective endorsement, and reasons for action. In this paper I will briefly introduce the contemporary debates about behaviour change, sketch why the (Millian) libertarian arguments are not all that interesting or important, and develop the discussion of autonomy and behaviour change in a more Kantian direction. I will illustrate my argument with applications to smoking and tobacco policy.

Biography: Professor Richard Ashcroft teaches medical law and ethics at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Law at Queen Mary, University of London. Previously he was Professor of Biomedical Ethics in the School of Medicine and Dentistry, and before that he worked at Imperial College London, Bristol University and Liverpool University. He is Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Incentives in Health, funded by the Wellcome Trust, with partners at Kings College London and the London School of Economics. He is also working on the role of human rights theory, law and practice in bioethics policy, and on ethical challenges in public health. He has a longstanding interest in biomedical research ethics and is a member of the Ethics and Policy Advisory Committee of the Medical Research Council, Director of the Appointing Authority for Phase I Ethics Committees and a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party on tobacco.