Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 May 2019
The corruption of public officials and institutions is generally regarded as wrong. But in what exactly does this form of corruption consist and what kind of wrong does it imply? Recent proponents of the “institutionalist approach” to political corruption have concentrated on those occasions when incentive structures distract institutions from their essential purpose and weaken public trust. The corruption of individual public officials has been less relevant to their work, except for when it leads to the erosion of the functioning of institutions. From this perspective, a clear emphasis has been put on the consequences of corruption. In contrast, I argue that political corruption, whether individual or institutional, can be more fundamentally understood as a form of political injustice in which someone has violated the logic of mutual accountability that undergirds all relations of justice in rights-based systems. In this sense, political corruption occurs when public officials use their entrusted power of office for the pursuit of an agenda whose rationale may not be vindicated as coherent with the terms of their mandate. By focusing on the inherent qualities of corrupt political relations, I lay out a novel relational and deontological understanding of the inherent wrongness of political corruption as a form of unaccountable action.
I started working on this essay while I was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre de Recherche en Etique at Montreal University; I wish to thank all the great colleagues who offered their feedback on my first ideas for this essay. Previous versions were presented at the 2015 Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association (University of Warwick), the 2016 Congress of the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy (University of Pistoia), the Nuffield Political Theory Workshop (University of Oxford), as well as at seminars at the Universities of Hamburg, Kent, Montréal, Pavia, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales – Paris, Hitotsubashi University of Tokyo, Sciences Po – Paris, and the University College Dublin. I am grateful to the participants in those events for their helpful feedback. For insightful written comments on previous drafts, I am indebted to Michele Bocchiola, Maria Paola Ferretti, Dave Schmidtz, Dennis Thompson, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal.
1 Lessig, Lawrence, “Institutional Corruption,” Edmond J. Safra Research Lab Working Papers 1 (2013): 1–20;Google Scholar Lessig, Lawrence, “Institutional Corruption Defined,” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 41 (2013): 553–55;CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed Seumas Miller, “Corruption,” in Ed Zalta, ed., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/corruption/; Dennis Thompson, Ethics in Congress (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1995); Thompson, Dennis, “Two Concepts of Corruption: Making Electoral Campaigns Safe for Democracy,” George Washington Law Review 73 (2005): 1036–69.Google Scholar
2 The focus on democracies, albeit limited, is justified in view of the general understanding of political corruption as a disease of the public order (Inge Amundsen, “Political Corruption: An Introduction to the Issues,” Chr. Michelsen Institute Development Studies and Human Rights WP 7 : 1–32). That being so, the interpretations of this phenomenon vary depending on the normative theory of the public order that they presuppose. The interpretations of political corruption I discuss in the essay presuppose a democratic theory of the public order as a specific instance of a rights-based system. Their adaptation to other kinds of rights-based systems (including, for example, nongovernmental organizations or large corporations) is possible but exceeds the boundaries of this essay. For a review of different interpretations of political corruption, see Deysine, Anne, “Political Corruption: A Review of the Literature,” European Journal of Political Research 8 (1980): 447–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
3 I employ the label of “relational justice” to provide a readily intelligible characterization of this idea of justice in contrast with the distributivist paradigm, as explained in the work of such relational egalitarians as Elizabeth Anderson (“What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 : 287–337) and Samuel Scheffler (“What is Egalitarianism?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 : 5–39). However, my considerations extend beyond the reference to relational equality and apply to the idea of relational justice in general. I have developed this idea in the terms of “interactive justice” in Ceva, Emanuela, Interactive Justice (New York: Routledge, 2016).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
4 Ceva, Emanuela and Ferretti, Maria Paola, “Liberal Democratic Institutions and the Damages of Political Corruption,” The Ethics Forum 9 (2014): 126–45;Google Scholar Ceva, Emanuela and Ferretti, Maria Paola, “Political Corruption,” Philosophy Compass 12 (2017): https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12461;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Ceva, Emanuela and Ferretti, Maria Paola, “Political Corruption, Individual Behaviour, and the Quality of Institutions,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 17 (2018): 216–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
5 See, respectively, Thompson, Ethics in Congress; Thompson, “Two Concepts of Corruption: Making Electoral Campaigns Safe for Democracy”; and Lessig, “Institutional Corruption”; Lessig, “Institutional Corruption Defined”; Lessig, Lawrence, “What an Originalist Would Understand ‘Corruption’ to Mean,” California Law Review 102 (2004): 1–24;Google Scholar Lessig, Lawrence, “Corrupt and Unequal, Both,” Fordham Law Review 84 (2015): 445–52.Google Scholar
6 Lessig, “Institutional Corruption Defined,” 553.
8 See Thompson, “Two Concepts of Corruption: Making Electoral Campaigns Safe for Democracy.”
9 Ibid.; Thompson, Dennis, “Two Concepts of Corruption,” Edmond J. Safra Research Lab Working Papers 16 (2013): 1–24.Google Scholar
10 For a discussion of the relation between individual and systemic manifestations of political corruption, see Ferretti, Maria Paola, “A Taxonomy of Institutional Corruption,” in this issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, 242–63.Google Scholar
12 See Lessig “Institutional Corruption Defined,” 553.
13 For an impartiality-based discussion of corruption, see Kolstad, Ivar, “Corruption as a Violation of Distributed Ethical Obligations,” Journal of Global Ethics 8 (2012): 239–302;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Rothstein, Bo and Teorell, John, “What is Quality of Government: A Theory of Impartial Political Institutions,” Governance 21 (2008): 165–90;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Rothstein, Bo and Varraich, Aiysha, Making Sense of Corruption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
14 Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption, Individual Behaviour, and the Quality of Institutions.”
15 See ibid.; Warren, “What Does Corruption Mean in a Democracy.”
16 See Amundsen, “Political Corruption: An Introduction to the Issues,” 3.
17 See Ceva and Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions and the Damages of Political Corruption”; Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption, Individual Behavior, and the Quality of Institutions.”
18 I am grateful to Mark Knights and Peter Mentzel for pressing me to make this point explicitly. For a broader discussion, see, Ceva, Emanuela and Bocchiola, Michele, Is Whistleblowing a Duty? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).Google Scholar
20 For a discussion see O’Neill, Onora, “Transparency and the Ethics of Communication,” in Hood, Christopher and Heald, David, eds., Transparency: The Key to Better Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
21 One famous disagreement is between the proponents of a “consensus” model of public justification (see, e.g., John Rawls, Political Liberalism [New York: Columbia University Press, 1999]) and those who defend a “convergence” view (see, e.g., Gaus, Jerry, The Order of Public Reason [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011]).Google Scholar
22 I owe this remark to Elijah Wood.
23 See Knights, Mark, “Samuel Pepys and Corruption,” Parliamentary History 33 (2014): 19–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a historical phenomenology of the operations of redescription of acts of corruption see Knights, Mark, “Explaining Away Corruption in Pre-Modern Britain,” in this issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, 94–117.Google Scholar
24 See Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption, Individual Behavior, and the Quality of Institutions.” The paper also contains the suggestion that, on the basis of this line of reasoning, there is no such thing as “noble cause corruption” because its paradigmatic instances (for example, Oscar Schindler) may, in fact, be more fruitfully seen as instances of conscientious law-breaking.
25 For a discussion of the communicative nature of civil disobedience, see Brownlee, Kimberley, Conscience and Conviction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a discussion of the role of justified law-breaking in a democracy, see Ceva, Emanuela, “Political Justification through Democratic Participation: The Case for Conscientious Objection,” Social Theory and Practice 41 (2015): 26–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
26 I owe the suggestion of this formulation to Samuel Fleischacker.
28 Ibid., 252.
29 See Marion Young, Iris, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 25.Google Scholar For the formulation of such a relation in the domain of morality, see Darwall, Stephen, The Second-Person Standpoint (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
30 See Feinberg, “The Nature and Value of Rights,” 244.
31 Ibid., 253.
32 The idea that political corruption is a form of democratic exclusion can be found in Warren, “What Does Corruption Mean in a Democracy,” 333 and Warren, Mark, “Political Corruption as Duplicitous Exclusion,” Political Science and Politics 39 (2006): 803–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The characterization of political corruption as a publicly unaccountable use of an entrusted power of office adds specificity to this view and shows a sense in which political corruption is inherently wrong.
33 Of course, this familial logic could be appropriate to regulate hiring processes in family-owned businesses (for example, to perpetrate traditions). When it comes to large private corporations, arguably, we can reason by analogy with the logic that governs political relations and recognize the wrongness of adopting this familial logic in a derivative sense—the mandate associated with different rule-governed roles is, in this case, established in accordance with general laws and specific statutes. Reasoning by analogy suggests that the dividing line between the private and the political is hardly clear-cut. Nevertheless, political corruption—understood as the “corruption of the polis”—can be considered a primitive that pinpoints a distinctive alteration of the rights-based relations, which are constitutive of the public order, due to a distortion of the rules that govern public institutions. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for prompting me to flesh this point out.
35 Thompson, “Mediated Corruption: The Case of the Keating Five,” 371.
37 Ibid., 373–74.
38 See Emanuela Ceva, “Progressing Towards Justice. The Case for Blowing the Whistle on Political Corruption.”
40 See, respectively, Nye, Joseph, “Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis,” American Political Science Review 61 (1967): 417–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Dalla Porta, Donatella and Vannucci, Alberto, “The ‘Perverse Effects’ of Political Corruption,” Political Studies 45 (1997): 516–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
41 For normative discussions of anti-corruption instruments, see Seumas Miller, Peter Roberts, and Edward Spence, Corruption and Anti-Corruption: An Applied Philosophical Approach (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2005). For a classic critical discussion of the alleged positive consequences of corruption that may limit anti-corruption interventions, see Brooks, Robert C., “Attempted Apologies for Political Corruption,” International Journal of Ethics 19 (1909): 297–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar