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One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2012

"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

"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

"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."--Choice

"This book offers useful guidance about how to devise better incentives that direct people toward good choices without manipulating them."--Robert Mayer, Ethics

"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."--Maude Laliberté, Bioethical Inquiry

"Strings Attached makes you think . . . and above all, [it is] timely. [It] contribute[s] something substantial . . . and serve[s] as a reminder that the morality of markets and incentives is never a settled matter."--Raphael Calel, Economics and Philosophy

"[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

From the Inside Flap

"Strings Attached offers a fascinating tour of the history, morality, and unintended consequences of the modern obsession with using incentives to change behavior. Exploring cases from plea bargaining in criminal courts to paying students to earn good grades, Grant compellingly argues that using material incentives to get people to do things they otherwise would not raises important and previously unexamined questions about ethics, power, and character."--Lynn Stout, University of California, Los Angeles

"This remarkable book asks some deceptively simple questions: With what norms should we judge the use of incentives? How can we compare incentives to coercion and persuasion? With characteristically lucid prose and a productive blend of theory and case studies, Ruth Grant illuminates an often neglected arena of inquiry. At a time when philosophers advocate 'libertarian paternalism' as an alternative to coercion and governments deploy 'conditional cash transfers' as instruments of social policy, Grant's reflections could hardly be more relevant."--William Galston, The Brookings Institution

"Moving comfortably from Plato, modern philosophy, and organizational science to plea bargaining, medical research, and IMF loans, this impressive book lays bare some of the ethical complexities raised by the use of incentives in various social and political contexts. A comprehensive look at an underanalyzed topic, this book is a pleasure to read."--Alan Wertheimer, National Institutes of Health

"Strings Attached does a great job of exploring what needs to be considered when thinking about the ethics of incentives. Grant argues that choice and volition are not enough to answer ethical objections to the use of incentives, because not all choice and volition reflect the freedom and autonomy we aspire to. Policymakers and social scientists need to pay attention to this significant work. Thorough and accessible, it will be widely discussed and have a big impact."--Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Asks important questions of a presumably beneficial means of social control 24 Jan 2012
By Benjamin R Marsh - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"Can social engineering be a force for democratic improvement, or does it undermine democracy by treating citizens like puppets on a string?"

In Strings Attached, Dr. Ruth Grant considers the matter of incentives to discern their universal and setting-specific usefulness. Weighing arguments from history, psychology, ancient political theory, popular culture, economics, and other fields, she pokes holes in traditional views of incentives as applied in various settings; most directly the fields of education (as in pay-for-grades), cash incentives for medical testing, IMF loan restrictions, and plea bargaining. Along the way she clearly defines incentives in terms of their relationship to power, politics, and economics, and develops a set of standards to judge these and other uses of incentives. She concludes by questioning, as in in the quote above, how all incentives presume a mechanical understanding of human motivations and thereby devalue the individual decision-maker to potentially disastrous effects in a democratic society.

The primary strength of this book lies in Dr. Grant's method of argument. She is a generous and sensitive writer as she pursues her points without moralizing. When she pokes holes in the common practice of plea bargaining, for example, she does not have a target, be it lazy judges or overeager lawyers, but seeks instead to draw attention to the way in which plea bargaining itself undermines the very purposes of the justice system as "it cannot serve either truth or justice." Indeed, Dr. Grant's targets are never individual decision-makers or institutions but practices and assumptions. She is no polemicist. Her goal is a better society, not the persecution of any particular mistaken individual.

A second strength of the book lies in the breadth of argument employed. This book is not for the layman, though the layman would surely benefit from her arguments. Even as she employs examples from a kindergarten classroom, she draws on examples from authors as varied as John Locke, Thucydides, and William Easterly. I found this breadth enjoyable as my assumptions about incentives were challenged from disparate cultures, eras, and fields, but I winced a few times as I read because the examples given could perhaps turn off a more casual reader. Not that Dr. Grant's writing style is opaque: if anything, this is one of the more easily readable books written by a Professor of Political Science that I have read in some time. I just wish the question Dr. Grant raises about incentives would be asked by a broader audience than this book portends to reach.

The one weakness is hard to identify as a weakness because it directly contradicts the two aforementioned strengths of String Attached: because Dr. Grant is a sensitive author who employs a broad range of arguments, the system she creates to judge individual incentives is complicated and leads (as she readily admits), to difficult judgment calls when considering how and when to apply incentives. She writes "the application of standards turns out to be a complex affair. As with all prudential judgments, context matters greatly. There is no `rule of thumb' ..." Though she (thankfully) reiterates her criteria for the ethical application of incentives throughout the book, I still found myself flipping back and forth (no mean feat on a kindle) to remember the standards she has created. That implies two things: 1) the standards created, though they are well-reasoned, are not very memorable; and 2) the standards are probably sufficiently complex to preclude their usage by most policy-makers. Perhaps I am underestimating policy-makers, but I do not see too many of them thoughtfully considering the definitions and standards found in Strings Attached when they consider the specific application of incentives in their respective fields.

The value of this book lies in the questions Dr. Grant asks about incentives from a more theoretical, universal point of view. What malignant effects will incentives have on our democratic society when they replace persuasion as our primary means of social progress? What happens when we simply assume, from the outset, that people need external motivators to do good things or develop moral values? These are worthy questions.

In brief: a great read on an incredibly important topic that asks very important questions about a rapidly-spreading tool for social and political control. Non-political scientists, keep Wikipedia close at hand.

For the sake of full disclosure, I did study with Dr. Grant as a student at Duke University in 2003-2004 but have not really spoken with her since (to my chagrin, really).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Moral Philosopher on the Morality of the Dangled Carrot 20 Jun 2012
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a really insightful book, a philosophical examination of the morality of incentives. Is it moral, in other words, to dangle a carrot in front of someone in order to get them to do what they might not otherwise. Grant's thoughtful and pluralistic analysis is that one's answer basically depends on three major (and several minor) questions.

Is the purpose of the incentive moral (are we getting someone to be healthy or kill someone)?
Is what we are offering as an incentive moral (are we offering a gift certificate or crack cocaine)?
Is the incentive such that it might change the character of the target (are we "crowding out" potential internal motivation with external motivation)?

There are some other questions the author entertains as relevant (how likely is it that the target wouldn't do x via some other motivation, like reasoning with them?), but these are the "big three." Needless to say, anyone looking for a philosophical argument that simply celebrates or repudiates all incentive structures will be disappointed.

From here, the author gives us four examples of controversial incentive programs and analyzes them using the questions she fleshed out: the use of plea bargains, paying for participation in medical research, a condition of austerity policies placed getting an IMF loan, and paying kids for good school performance. (I really question whether the third of these belongs here, as the IMF loan is not an incentive to get nations to adopt austerity policies, but a condition placed on a loan that countries are already applying for.) I won't rehash the author's positions on all four, but the interesting case to me was that of plea bargaining. Grant expresses aversion (I think, correctly) largely because dangling a lower sentence in front of criminals who plead guilty takes away the "justice" from justice by way of allowing someone to be punished LESS than they would have been for a crime by virtue of saving the state the burden of a trial. Another interesting case was that of paying medical research subjects, which Grant is largely (with limits) for, because all "big three" questions can largely be answered in a way that satisfies moral demands (the first two, "yes," the third, "not likely.")

All in all, a really enjoyable book that will probably change the way (deepen, really) you think about incentives and the moral issues involved with them. I have some quibbles (the author's use of the term "coercion" is probably looser than I think sensible, the author often talks about our intrinsic motivation for doing things without recognizing that some examples she uses - doing well in school - often involve more extrinsic motivations [making parents happy, promise of a high paying job later on, etc] whether incentives are EXPLICITLY used or not). But Grant does philosophy very well, delving very ably into the moral nuances of incentive use. A much more nuanced and thoughtful discussion of incentives than is found in Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Come on, just do it... 6 Mar 2012
By Dr. Wilson Trivino - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
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