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The Thought of Corruption

NCH London | October 21, 2019

How is corrupt activity in office related to the corruption of institutions and to corrupt personal character?

The Ottoline Club met on 5th February 2019 in the Archive to hear a talk by Dr. David Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy.

Those present were: David Mitchell and Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Callum Barrell (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Marianna Koli, Mike Peacey and Susan Steed (Faculty of Economics) and Rosalind Barrs (Registrar).

Much thought goes into corruption, in one way or another, and many thoughts are expressed by the term. Such thoughts may be about the behaviour of office-or role-occupants; but we also speak of the corruption of institutions such as democracy, on the one hand, and of corruption of personal character on the other. These are three distinct notions, but they are of course to some degree positively correlated in their instances, and, David proposed, they are also strongly analogous: what all three have in common is the idea of something – whether the exercise of an office, or an institution, or a character – being made decisively worse, in some sense, by motives of an inferior kind. The three notions’ being thus both positively correlated and analogous makes it very easy to fail to respect their distinctness, as many disputes about the topic confirm.

This must lead to serious error if, for example, David Hume and Adam Smith were right in arguing, against the tendency of Montesquieu, Adam Ferguson and others, that the corruption of institutional goods isn’t mainly due to personal corruption. Parliaments and executives can do a good, robust job, under this view, despite a deep influence of private interest on their operations; and in any case there’s a big difference between ‘self-love’ being a largely prevalent motive in a person and that person’s being corrupt. But even if these arguments are inconclusive, and good replies to them can be made on behalf of the republican tradition, David claimed that our thought on corruption would benefit from a partial supplanting of the vocabulary: it is symptomatic that some of the most productive recent writing on the topic, by Michael Johnston, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and others, begins with this traditional vocabulary but then, by articulating relations to other more precise and tractable notions, to a considerable extent leaves it behind. It is not that talk of corruption should be avoided, he explained, but it very often needs to be supplemented, so that what is understood by it doesn’t become excessively broad or vague.

It was notable that three contributors to the subsequent discussion offered judgements that in different ways broadened the application of “corruption” beyond the boundaries of its familiar definition as abuse of public office for private gain. Susan spoke of the corruption in the City of London and in large banks; Marianna added that we must particularly recognise private sector corruption because so many of the functions of government have been and are being taken over by firms; and Mike entertained the idea that if in entrance interviews he were to give predominant weight to students’ disadvantaged or needy circumstances, he would be acting corruptly even if not in any way being motivated by private gain. Here David was inclined to suggest that Susan’s and Mike’s judgements were prompted by the two adjoining notions, of personal malfeasance and of damage to institutions; whereas he took Marianna’s point to support construing the ‘public’ aspect of role-relative corruption less in terms of  ownership and more in terms of responsibility for goods that are public in the economist’s sense. Susan was keen at this point to underline that banking can and should be a great public service, and proposed that the Bank of England’s lately revealed instigation of the fixing of the inter-bank lending rate ought to be seen as corruption that was motivated specifically by concern for public gain, or at least to avoid losses to the public.

Conceptions of what it is to be public were thus very much at issue in some of the conversation. Naomi invited us to discriminate between two ways in which an institution can be publicly beneficial, namely by channelling self-interest constructively and by fostering in participants a gradually developing devotion to some public good for its own sake. In other directions, Marianna wondered whether it is only processes that can count as corruption – David thought not – , and Callum whether a Greek would have thought that Socrates’s corrupting the young would entail that Socrates himself was corrupt. Not necessarily, David reckoned; but he was open to the idea that sometimes a corruptor may be more culpable than whoever they corrupt, and he connected this possibility with Susan’s remarks on how thefts of public resources in Ukraine in recent years were facilitated by opaque business registration practices in the UK.