An evening with Behavioural Economist Dr. Cass Sunstein
ON FREEDOM - A Lecture By renowned Behavioural Economist and Harvard Professor Dr. Cass R. Sunstein
Office of PR & Communications9 August, 2019 | 6 min read
On August 08, 2019, Ashoka University’s Centre for Social and Behaviour Change hosted a public lecture titled “On Freedom” by renowned Behavioral Economist and Harvard professor Dr. Cass Sunstein. He was also the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.
Dr. Pramath Sinha, founder and trustee of Ashoka University, began the evening by welcoming Dr. Sunstein.
Dr. Sunstein started the public lecture with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi – “In a gentle way, you can shake the world. The juxtaposition of the two words “gentle” and “shake” in the same sentence is something amazing! Behaviour Science is all about this”. He also said, “It is a tremendous honour for me to be here. I am so overwhelmed by your kindness, generosity, and creativity. The ingenuity is incredible especially in Behavioural Science”.
In his New York Times bestselling book, Dr. Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He urges us to ask question and helps us with the answers too. Does freedom of choice promote human well-being? Many people think so. According to these people, each of us is the best judge of what will promote our own well-being. And, they also argue that people should be able to go their own way, so long as they are not harming others. Is freedom of choice enough or do we need more? He argues that to be truly free, we must also be able to navigate life. But what if people do not know how to find their way? For many of us, navigability is a serious problem, argues Dr. Sunstein. He says that when life is hard to navigate, people are less free. People often need a GPS device to help them get where they want to go – whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships. But amidst this, we miss out the most important question – what is freedom actually? And, is people’s choice respected? Life is unfree because the meaning is less understandable. And, here, Dr. Sunstein brings in nudges, which are interventions that fully preserve the freedom of choice but that also steer people’s decisions in certain directions. What is the link between nudging and freedom?
Dr. Sunstein also argues that in both rich and poor countries, citizens often have no idea how to get to their desired destinations. And, that is why they are unfree. He further says that people face serious problems of self-control, as many of them make decisions today that can have a lasting impact on their lives tomorrow. In daily life, a GPS device is an example of a nudge. It respects one’s freedom and one can ignore its advice if one wishes. Dr. Sunstein further argues that almost all nudges have a similar goal. Signs are nudges and so are calorie labels at restaurants. But why do nudges work? It’s because we are all humans.
“On Freedom…explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed and shows what it would take to make freedom real”, concludes Dr. Sunstein.
He further says that sometimes, “freedom of choice fails to support people but that doesn’t mean that we should stop from pursuing it. At the end, a democratic governance needs a democratic architecture i.e. choice to vote for instance. No government can avoid nudging but the question that remains is which way are they going to nudge?”
Drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, arts, social sciences and law, Dr. Sunstein discusses what it would take to make freedom real. His lecture was followed by a fireside chat with Vice-Chancellor Dr. Malabika Sarkar.