Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
Strings Attached is a thoughtful . . . look at the encroaching power of the market and its mechanisms in a range of human activity. What does it mean to see life as a series of transactions? The question is relevant far beyond the book's specific samples.
— Nancy F. Koehn
Science
We're used to relying on incentives. Academics face an incentive to publish papers, hedge fund managers have incentives to earn money for their clients, and if we don't pay our taxes we face the threat of sanctions, fines, and jail. The contribution of Ruth W. Grant in Strings Attached is to question the morality of these arrangements and their ubiquity in our lives.
— Tyler Cowen
Financial Times
Increasingly, authorities mistake freedom for choice, Prof. Grant believes. They manipulate, demean and corrupt in the name of a 'freedom' that is no freedom at all. Her ideas may or may not result in better public policy. But they ought to give us a richer idea of freedom.
— Christopher Caldwell
Psychology Today
In a very interesting, helpful new book, Strings Attached, author Ruth W. Grant deals with incentives in all kinds of situations.
BizEd Magazine
In Strings Attached, Ruth W. Grant examines the history, language, and ethics of incentives, both in the workplace and the realm of public policy. Grant, a professor at Duke, considers incentives to be a form of power, right alongside force and persuasion as methods people can use to get someone else to do what they want.
Biz Ed Magazine

In Strings Attached, Ruth W. Grant examines the history, language, and ethics of incentives, both in the workplace and the realm of public policy. Grant, a professor at Duke, considers incentives to be a form of power, right alongside force and persuasion as methods people can use to get someone else to do what they want.
Public Choice
I regard the book as illuminating. It may not give us all the right answers, but shows us how to ask all the right questions.
— Jason Brennan
Society
[This book] ought to appeal to . . . everyone who wants a say over his or her own life and possesses a healthy skepticism towards schemes of stealthy power.
— Andrew Sabl
Choice
Grant examines the ethical implications of incentives, which she sees as a form of power. . . . Grant's conclusion is an excellent summary of the deeper democratic values threatened by unanalyzed use of incentives in public policy. This is an important contribution to both ethics and public policy.
New York Times - Nancy F. Koehn
Strings Attached is a thoughtful . . . look at the encroaching power of the market and its mechanisms in a range of human activity. What does it mean to see life as a series of transactions? The question is relevant far beyond the book's specific samples.
Science - Tyler Cowen
We're used to relying on incentives. Academics face an incentive to publish papers, hedge fund managers have incentives to earn money for their clients, and if we don't pay our taxes we face the threat of sanctions, fines, and jail. The contribution of Ruth W. Grant in Strings Attached is to question the morality of these arrangements and their ubiquity in our lives.
Financial Times - Christopher Caldwell
Increasingly, authorities mistake freedom for choice, Prof. Grant believes. They manipulate, demean and corrupt in the name of a 'freedom' that is no freedom at all. Her ideas may or may not result in better public policy. But they ought to give us a richer idea of freedom.
Public Choice - Jason Brennan
I regard the book as illuminating. It may not give us all the right answers, but shows us how to ask all the right questions.
Society - Andrew Sabl
[This book] ought to appeal to . . . everyone who wants a say over his or her own life and possesses a healthy skepticism towards schemes of stealthy power.
Ethics - Robert Mayer
This book offers useful guidance about how to devise better incentives that direct people toward good choices without manipulating them.
Bioethical Inquiry - Maude Laliberté
In Strings Attached, Grant provides a rich and nuanced analysis of the issue of incentives, while still being accessible for a general public interested in the subject. Not specifically aimed at a specialized academic readership, the book nonetheless provides a thorough historical, ethical, and political perspective on incentives that should prove of interest to scholars in bioethics.
Bioethical Inquiry - Maude Laliberte
In Strings Attached, Grant provides a rich and nuanced analysis of the issue of incentives, while still being accessible for a general public interested in the subject. Not specifically aimed at a specialized academic readership, the book nonetheless provides a thorough historical, ethical, and political perspective on incentives that should prove of interest to scholars in bioethics.
Nancy F. Koehn
Strings Attached is a thoughtful…look at the encroaching power of the market and its mechanisms in a range of human activity.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher

"[I]n its assault on economic perspectives, it packs a powerful punch. And from start to finish, the lucidity and grace of the exposition are unconditionally admirable: I never fear that I can't figure out what Grant is saying, and these days too many theory books make me fearful in just that way. This clarity means the book would be a complete winner in the classroom."--Don Herzog, Political Theory
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691151601
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/27/2011
  • Series: Russell Sage Foundation Co-pub
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


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".
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

1 Why Worry about Incentives? 1

2 Incentives then and Now the Clock and The Engineer 14

3 "Incentives Talk" What Are Incentives Anyway? 31

4 Ethical and not so Ethical insentives 45

5 Appling Standards, Making Judgements 60

6 Getting down to cases

Plea Bargaining 76

Recruiting Medical Research Subjects 86

IMF Loan Conditions 101

Motivating Children to Learn 111

7 Beyond voluntariness 123

8 A Different kind of conversation 133

Notes 141

References 171

Index 189

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 6, 2012

    Come on, just do it!

    The idea of the book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives by Ruth W. Grant came about from a class she taught in Greek political philosophy. The discussion centered on under what circumstances you should use coercion or force when attempting to persuade a certain action.
    Grant goes back to the philosophical root of these and the even defines the changing meaning of incentive. The current accepted intent of the word is a relatively new concept.
    The author explores the concept of inceptive by the lens of ethical and unethical ones, the standard and how they are judged.
    What makes this book valuable is that it goes beyond academic ease and uses the cases to explore how they are implicated. The most interesting one is when she explores the history of plea bargaining in our court systems. I find this fascinating and gives insight to a relatively new tool used.
    Political Scientist Ruth Grant opens the discussion on what works when crafting public policy that develops to foster a desired outcome. This is a gray area and can be tricky when implemented.
    Strings Attached is a good read to hook you into a larger discussion of what works and what doesn’t in public policy or how what are better tactics we can use in persuading others in our daily lives.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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