Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ruth W. Grant's "Strings Attached"

Ruth W. Grant is professor of political science and philosophy and a senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. She is the author of John Locke's Liberalism and Hypocrisy and Integrity.

Grant applied the “Page 99 Test” to her most recent book, Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, and reported the following:
If you open Strings Attached to p. 99, you will find yourself in the middle of a discussion of the use of incentives to recruit subjects for medical research: “. . . consider the hypothetical case where cash incentives are offered through an advertisement in a high school newspaper for sexually active teenagers willing to participate in a research study. Some religious students object, viewing the incentives as a reward for immoral behavior. And one might imagine others objecting that it undermines the cultural support of teenage abstinence as an important value in a more general sense. But if the incentives offered were free treatment of sexually transmitted infections, counseling, or birth control, the picture could change considerably with respect to these concerns . . . sometimes, even attention to the kind of incentive that is offered can make an ethical difference.” This book takes up widely differing uses of incentives - from plea bargaining to paying students to get good grades – aiming to help us distinguish legitimate from illegitimate uses of them.

Incentives can be found everywhere – in schools, businesses, factories, and government – and so long as people have a choice, incentives seem innocuous. But incentives are a form of power: they are one way some people get other people to do what they want them to do. When viewed as a kind of power, many ethical questions arise: How do incentives affect character and institutional culture? Can incentives be manipulative or exploitative, even if people are free to refuse them? What are the responsibilities of the powerful in using incentives? I argue that, like all other forms of power, incentives can be subject to abuse.

Strings Attached begins with the history of the growth of incentives in early twentieth-century America, identifies standards for judging incentives, and examines four cases in detail. In every case, the analysis of incentives in terms of power yields strikingly different and more complex judgments than an analysis that views incentives as trades. With this novel approach, I distinguish between incentives rather than embracing or rejecting them wholesale.

Finally, the book raises questions about the place of incentives in a democratic society. Incentives are used increasingly in all areas of life. They are employed by experts to steer people’s behavior. And they encourage people to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Readers of this book will be led to wonder, first, about the proper role of experts in a democracy and, second, about whether the penchant for constant ‘incentivizing’ undermines the qualities required for active, autonomous democratic citizenship.
Learn more about the book at the official Strings Attached Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue