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Strings Attached:
Untangling the Ethics of Incentives
Ruth W. Grant

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2012

Paperback | 2014 | $21.95 | £17.95 | ISBN: 9780691161020
Hardcover | 2011 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691151601
224 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 2 line illus.
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Ruth W. Grant(photo by Duke Photography)
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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.


"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 examples."--Nancy F. Koehn, New York Times

"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, Science

"Increasingly, authorities mistake freedom for choice. . . . They manipulate, demean and corrupt in the name of a 'freedom' that is no freedom at all. [Grant's] ideas may or may not result in better public policy. But they ought to give us a richer idea of freedom."--Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times

"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, Public Choice

"[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, Society

"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, Financial Times

"In a very interesting, helpful new book, Strings Attached, author Ruth W. Grant deals with incentives in all kinds of situations."--Psychology Today

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Table of Contents:

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
CHAPTER ONE: Why Worry about Incentives? 1
CHAPTER TWO: Incentives Then and Now The Clock and the Engineer 14
CHAPTER THREE: "Incentives Talk" What Are Incentives Anyway? 31
CHAPTER FOUR: Ethical and Not So Ethical Incentives 45
CHAPTER FIVE: Applying Standards, Making Judgments 60
CHAPTER SIX: Getting Down to Cases
--Plea Bargaining 76
--Recruiting Medical Research Subjects 86
--IMF Loan Conditions 101
-- Motivating Children to Learn 111
CHAPTER SEVEN: Beyond Voluntariness 123
CHAPTER EIGHT: A Different Kind of Conversation 133
Notes 141
References 171
Index 189

Subject Areas:

Copublished with the Russell Sage Foundation

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