We live in an age of psychology and behavioral economics – the behavioral sciences.
For-profit companies are using behavioral research every day. They want to learn how people think and to use that learning to make money. Charitable organizations consult behavioral scientists to find out how they might attract donors and increase donations. For their part, public officials are increasingly turning to the behavioral sciences to promote their goals. They are influencing people in multiple ways in order to reduce poverty, to increase employment, to clean the air, to improve health, to encourage people to vote, and to increase safety on the highways. What are the ethical constraints on their actions?
From the ethical point of view, there are large differences between coercion and influence. A single person can certainly coerce another: A thief, armed with a gun, tells you, “Your money or your life.” Coercion might also be said to occur when employers inform their employees that unless they submit to certain requests, they will lose their jobs. Many of the most objectionable forms of coercion come from governments, which may threaten people with jail, or with large fines, if they do not do exactly what public officials want. In his great book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that coercion was unacceptable unless it was designed to prevent “harm to others.” Mill's target was the use of force.
Mere influences seem far less objectionable. If a beggar sitting on a street corner asks you for money, you are free to refuse. The same is true if an employer asks you to do certain tasks, while also making it clear that you are at liberty to decline. If a friend manipulates you into doing what she wants you to do, rather than what you want to do, you might not be thrilled, but at least you haven't been forced (and you might admire her for her ingenuity). A government might engage in public education campaigns, or even propaganda, but if people are allowed to ignore what public officials say, the problem, and the risks to liberty and well-being, might not seem all that severe.