Do apps that promote ethical behavior diminish our ability to make just decisions?

Evan Selinger and Thomas Seager in Slate:

ScreenHunter_06 Jul. 13 14.07Ethics apps do more than present users with relevant, sometimes hard-to-obtain information. Like a coach, they also directly influence our choices, motivating us to eat better, exercise more, budget our money, and get more out of our free time. Users don’t see these tools as threats to free will, self-esteem, or sustainable habits. Instead, they’re downloading increasing amounts of software containing a “good-behavior layer” that helps users avoid self-sabotaging decisions, like impulse buying and snacking. Capitalizing on three inter-related movements—nudging, the quantified self, and gamification—the good-behavior layer pinpoints our mental and emotional weaknesses and steers us away from temptations that compromise long-term success.

In many cases, good-behavior technology gets the job done by bolstering resolve withdigital willpower. By tweaking our responses with alluring and repulsive information, while also shielding us from distracting and demoralizing data, digital willpower helps us better control and redirect destructive urges. Apps like ToneCheck prevent us from sending off hotheaded emails, while GymPact inspires us to go the gym. Students are getting into the act, too, and developing apps to make their classmates more responsible, e.g., get to class on time and be less distracted. Arianna Huffington's project “GPS for the soul” promises to analyze a user’s stress levels and provide overwhelmed people with rebalancing stimuli, like “music, or poetry, or breathing exercises, or photos of a person or place you love.” We’re already willing to delegate self-control to technology—and future developments will likely give devices even more ethical decision-making power.

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