Economics and Philosophy



The ethics of incentives: historical origins and contemporary understandings


Ruth W. Grant a1
a1 Duke University

Abstract

Increasingly in the modern world, incentives are becoming the tool we reach for when we wish to bring about change. In government, in education, in health care, between and within institutions of all sorts, incentives are offered to steer people's choices in certain directions. But despite the increasing interest in ethics and economics, the ethics of the use of incentives has raised very little concern. From a certain point of view, this is not surprising. When incentives are viewed from the perspective of market economics, they appear to be entirely unproblematic. An incentive is an offer of something of value, sometimes with a cash equivalent and sometimes not, meant to influence the payoff structure of a utility calculation so as to alter a person's course of action. In other words, the person offering the incentive means to make one choice more attractive to the person responding to the incentive than any other alternative. Both parties stand to gain from the resulting choice. In effect, it is a form of trade, and as such, it meets certain ethical requirements by definition. A trade involves voluntary action by all parties concerned to bring about a result that is beneficial to all parties concerned. If these conditions were not met, the trade would simply not occur. And as inducements in a voluntary transaction, incentives certainly have the moral high ground over coercion as an alternative.