Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives


Incentives can be found everywhere--in schools, businesses, factories, and government--influencing people's choices about almost everything, from financial decisions and tobacco use to exercise and child rearing. So long as people have a choice, incentives seem innocuous. But Strings Attached demonstrates that when incentives are viewed as a kind of power rather than as a form of exchange, 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? Ruth Grant shows that, like all other forms of power, incentives can be subject to abuse, and she identifies their legitimate and illegitimate uses.

Grant offers a history of the growth of incentives in early twentieth-century America, identifies standards for judging incentives, and examines incentives in four areas--plea bargaining, recruiting medical research subjects, International Monetary Fund loan conditions, and motivating students. 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, in which the desired behavior is freely exchanged for the incentives offered.

Challenging the role and function of incentives in a democracy, Strings Attached questions whether the penchant for constant incentivizing undermines active, autonomous citizenship. Readers of this book are sure to view the ethics of incentives in a new light.


The idea for this project was born during an undergraduate seminar in ancient Greek political philosophy. the students were exploring the circumstances under which coercion, or force, might be ethically superior to persuasion. That possibility ran counter to their usual assumptions. How often had they been told as youngsters to “use your words” instead of hitting or pushing or grabbing? the assigned reading for that day was the opening scene of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Philoctetes is in possession of Achilles’ bow, which the Greeks must have in order to defeat the Trojans. Odysseus, always the clever one, is attempting to persuade the noble young son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, to help him retrieve the bow by means of a deceitful scheme. Neoptolemus resists the use of such shameful tactics, saying,

I have a natural antipathy to get my ends by tricks and
strategems… Philoctetes I will gladly fight and capture,
bring him with us, but not by treachery.

For Neoptolemus, force is more honorable than fraud as a means of attaining one’s goals.

And then someone asked, “What about incentives? Wouldn’t that be an alternative way of getting Philoctetes to relinquish the bow?” Here was an interesting possibility; and even more interesting, it was a possibility that was not included in the play. Why not? Did the Greeks not understand that “everyone has his price”? Or, on the contrary, did they understand the limits to that saying better than we do? It is unlikely that an incentive would have worked with Philoctetes. Bargaining is not . . .

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