This module is a resource for lecturers  


Deeper meanings of corruption


By taking stock of many different understandings of corruption, we can develop an integrated awareness and a fuller understanding of the phenomenon. In what follows, some useful understandings of corruption are discussed.


Moral character and civic virtue

One basic way in which corruption has been understood is as a trait of character or a vice. This encompasses character traits, such as greed, disloyalty, squandering, envy and self-indulgence. These may be personal vices affecting professional performance in public office. These vices may acquire wider public and political relevance when they have corrosive or distorting effects which influence social institutions or the social order (for an overview, see Miller, 2004). Consider this exchange between the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and one of his interlocutors, Adeimantus, found in Plato's Republic (381 BC):

Socrates: Surely, when wealth and the wealthy are honoured in the city, virtue and the good men are less honourable.
Adeimantus: Plainly.
Socrates: Surely, what happens to be honoured is practiced, and what is without honour is neglected.

Laying the bases for modern-day concerns over plutocratic and kleptocratic rule, the Ancient Greeks used the word "oligarchy" to refer to a system of rule by the few for the purpose of moneymaking (Kuhner, 2016, p. 2464). A key connotation of such terminology is that of a transformation from a relatively fair set of political practices to an unjust and impure one.

Surveying the various Greek words commonly translated as "corruption", Arlene Saxonhouse (2004, p. 31) notes that "[a]ll imply the loss of some integrity, the loss of form, and suggest the process of change that such loss entails". In that objective, value-free sense, corruption describes the deterioration of one thing and its replacement with another thing; but that dynamic process need not necessarily be negative or undesirable. Socrates, while steadfastly convinced of the logic and value of his reasoning, was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. To find that his teachings were an assault on his students' virtue, a particular notion of virtue must be posited, which is necessarily subjective. As Saxonhouse (2004, p. 35) notes, Athenians understood virtue to be a function of fidelity to their own traditions and customs. Socrates sealed his own fate by admitting to contradicting that version of virtue by teaching the importance of the soul over the importance of the body, reputation or wealth. The case of Socrates exemplifies how, depending on the circumstances, what is deemed as "corruption" could be well justified. Did Mahatma Ghandi corrupt his countrymen by turning them against British imperialism? The analysis hinges on whether the values or social system being undermined and transformed were right to begin with - if they were wrong, there is surely a clear argument for challenging them. This is analogous to cases of civil disobedience.

Another relevant text to consider is a famous essay on civil disobedience by the nineteenth-century American Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay taxes during the Mexican-American War, convinced - rightly it would seem - that his tax dollars would have gone to support the United States government's campaign to expand slavery. In this case, breaking the law was the most ethical thing to do and Thoreau felt obligated to follow the dictates of his own conscience over the requirements of the law. Similarly, the "corruption" of the youth by Socrates in reality instilled in them superior critical thinking skills and a normatively appealing attention to their own souls, rather than concentrating on riches, bodily urges and reputation.

Substantively speaking, classical views of corruption tended to associate corruption with the idea of loss of integrity or deviance from the proper purposes. Prominently in the work of Machiavelli, the emphasis is on corruption as the decline of civic virtue at the hands of self-interest and greed, meaning the triumph of private interest over the public good. The concern over civic virtues was taken up by the "republican revisionism" or "civic humanism" of such mid- to late twentieth century writers as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and J.A. Pocock (for a discussion of these approaches, see Burtt, 2004, p. 103-107). More recently, however, Thompson (1995) and Lessig (2018) have developed an "institutionalist" view of political corruption. While corruption can occur on an individual level, involving problematic personal gains in breach of personal morality or professional ethics, corruption can also acquire an institutional dimension when the institutions themselves are structured in a way that makes them deviate from their original purpose. A paradigmatic example is private financing of political campaigns in the United States. As explained by Ceva and Ferretti (2017, p. 3):

In the USA, candidates that run for elections are allowed to receive financial support from such a diverse set of private sources as ordinary citizens, private corporations, and either cultural or religious groups. It may thus happen that, once elected, a politician who has received financial support from, say, a private company pushes forward some regulation that aims at reducing the fiscal pressure in the area where this company operates.

Thus, even if candidates do not act illegally on the individual level, it is clear that the practice of private donation is susceptible to political corruption. It can thus be argued that the institution of democratic elections is corrupt since "[t]he institutionalised practice of receiving private funds for electoral campaigns makes the institution of democratic elections depend on … the arbitrary influence of financial powers" (Ceva and Ferretti, 2017, p. 3). The institutionalist approach accordingly suggests that in the study of corruption we should focus on the "bad barrel" (distorting institutional practices and mechanisms) rather than concentrating on the "bad apples" (individual misbehaviour).

Surveying a host of historical sources, Underkuffler (2013) notes that corruption involves "self-involvement, self-indulgence, and the loosening and discarding of the restraints of social bonds". Beyond its effect on individual character and morality, Underkuffler ties corruption to "corrosive, distorting, and decomposing forces" that undermine the social order. For example, she writes that "[t]he corrupt politician does not simply threaten particular individuals … his existence threatens the entire governmental system of reliance, trust, and the rule of law of which he is a part" (Underkuffler, 2013, p. 6).Here, the moral understanding of corruption intersects with a political understanding.



Political corruption refers generally to the corruption of public institutions and public officials. Some cases of political corruption affect the electoral process, including vote-buying, and election-rigging, but there are also more subtle forms of improper influence, such as the already mentioned private financing of electoral campaigns. For example, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) global report concluded that "[p]ayback of campaign debts in the form of political favours breeds a type of corruption that is commonly encountered around the world" (USAID, 2003, p. 7). In the same vein, Susan Rose-Ackerman (2010a) adopts a "democratic legitimacy" approach to corruption. Under this conception, corruption "substitutes the criterion of willingness-to-pay for criteria based on desert, need, efficiency, and other values". Karl-Heinz Nassmacher's (2009) definition of corruption is based on the same basic assumption: that economic criteria for allocating resources (ability and willingness to pay) should be kept separate from democratic criteria for political outcomes (votes, arguments on the merits, public opinion, etc.). He defines corruption as "the clandestine exchange between two markets, the political or administrative market and the economic or social market" (Nassmacher, 2009, p. 21). In their empirical study of corruption among candidates for political office in India, Banerjee and Pande (2009) found a high correlation between political corruption and "voter ethnicization" (voter preference for the party representing their ethnic group). Johnston (2005) describes how such exchanges can become a syndrome of corruption he calls "influence market corruption". This pattern of corruption "revolves around the use of wealth to seek influence within strong political and administrative institutions - often, with politicians putting their own access out for rent". For a further discussion of this topic, see Module 3 of the University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Once influence markets are widespread and powerful, they fundamentally alter the political system, as indicated by Nassmacher's distinction between democracy and plutocracy: "Whereas democracy is a political system based on equal participation by the multitude, plutocracy is a system dominated by the riches of an affluent minority" (Nassmacher, 2009, p. 239). This embodies a situation in which corrupt actors obtain political power and then proceed to change the rules of the game to benefit themselves and disadvantage their economic and political opponents. Addressing the risk of influence markets in the financing of political campaigns, political parties and political advertisements, a number of high courts - including the United States Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Canada, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil - have debated the constitutionality of political finance regulations and expressed concern over the political power of wealth. One example is a United States Supreme Court decision from 2003 that addressed the constitutionality of a federal law (the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law) which regulates political party finance. After considering the evidence, the Supreme Court found that "there is substantial evidence … that large soft-money contributions to national political parties give rise to corruption and the appearance of corruption". It accordingly upheld the contested federal law. See McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, 540 U.S. 93 (2003). Excerpts of the decision are available in this New York Times article. It is recalled in this context that according to the institutionalist view of political corruption, institutions themselves are corrupt when they are structured in a way that makes them deviate from their original purpose (see discussion in previous point above).

In his work on corruption in democracy, Mark Warren (2004) refocuses the attention from legalistic conceptions of corruption as violations of established rules to corruption in the processes of contestation through which common purposes, norms, and rules are created. Corruption in a democracy usually indicates a deficit of democracy and a violation of the rules of inclusion and political equality.



Nobel laureate Gary Becker's 1968 understanding of criminal activity gives students a different worldview to contemplate: "A person commits an offense if the expected utility to him exceeds the utility he could get by using his time and other resources at other activities. Some people become 'criminals', therefore, not because their basic motivation differs from that of other persons, but because their benefits and costs differ" (Della Porta and Vannucci, 2005, p. 2). The economic focus shifts attention to such considerations of costs and benefits, with costs being a function of the odds of being caught and the severity of penalties inflicted.

From a cost-benefit standpoint or a libertarian perspective, bribery, facilitation payments and trading in influence may be seen as justifiable attempts to evade (or at least navigate) inefficient and burdensome regulations. For example, Arnone and Borlini (2014) describe research going back to the 1960s suggesting that corruption could "grease the wheels of commerce, thus reducing transaction costs and lowering the cost of capital." From this point of view, bribes could be seen as diminishing the social and economic costs of regulations "by directing scarce resources toward higher bidders" (Arnone and Borlini, 2014, p. 15). Economic justifications for corruption can be derived from these lines of reasoning.

Another economic perspective emphasizes the role of "moral costs" in the overall cost-benefit equation facing rational actors poised to commit corrupt acts. Here economics meets morality as internalized beliefs compromised by corrupt conduct are factored into each actor's cost-benefit analysis in the form of decreased utility, e.g. by feeling guilty. Thus, although corrupt individuals may benefit from bribes, they suffer the moral cost of compromising personal, organizational or political value systems, the observance of which enhanced their psychological or social well-being (Della Porta and Vannucci, 2005, p. 2). Both authors warn, however, that as corruption becomes more widespread, its moral costs decrease as members of the political and business classes are socialized into corruption.

Others, including Rose-Ackerman and Stiglitz, have also elaborated upon the economic dimensions of corruption. Stiglitz (2002), for example, has assailed privatization and the "market fundamentalism" at the heart of economic globalization, stating: "Perhaps the most serious concern with privatization, as it has so often been practiced, is corruption." He claims that "the rigged privatization process was designed to maximize the amount government ministers could appropriate for themselves not the amount that would accrue to the government's treasury, let alone the overall efficiency of the economy" (Stiglitz, 2002, p. 58). Rose-Ackerman's approach, elaborated upon between 1978 and 2010, focuses on individual incentives and the need for redesigning institutions in order to affect the costs and benefits involved in corrupt behaviour (see her 2010 analysis here). Other parts of the economic literature on corruption address the negative externalities of corruption and the experimental evidence for the underlying motivations of corruption (Wantchekon and Serra, 2012). 


In the literature on corruption, culture has been defined in terms of "the dominant beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour in a given society" (Holmes, 2015, p. 4). Some scholars who are especially attentive to cultural variations consider Western anti-corruption norms to be ethnocentric and even a source of cultural imperialism. Their key claim is that payments, gifts and favours play a legitimate role in the social fabric of many cultures, even when they are assailed in Western societies as corrupt. While there is certainly some truth to cultural understandings of corruption, it is important to be vigilant of their use (or co-option) by self-serving actors as justifications for elites or outside interests to impose their will upon the people or upon local cultures. Rose-Ackerman and Palifka (2016) note that some cultural anthropologists "refuse to label transactions as corrupt if they are based on affective ties, or they claim that, even if formally illegal, the practices are socially acceptable, economically beneficial, and compensate for the imperfections of government and of electoral institutions". The baseline values would centre on personal relationships, family or ethnic loyalty, reciprocity, and trust. Impersonal economic and political norms and professionalized bureaucracies have not fully spread around the world - and where they have spread, they have not been implemented with the same degree of success. This line of argument resembles in many ways moral relativism claims and the challenge they pose to universal values. For a further discussion on universal values that transcend particular national, cultural and religious traditions, see Module 2 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics. It is noted in this context that culture is not only state-based; it can be regional and sub-regional as well as organizational. For a discussion on organizational culture and its impact on ethics and anti-corruption, see Module 7 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

Next:  Measuring corruption
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