A Bitter Pill That Must Be Swallowed: An Ethics Based View of Corruption

By Ashley Jones

In many ways, it seems that corruption is a necessary evil. After all, it does exist in almost every society and is present among different races, religions, and socioeconomic classes. News outlets often cite corruption as being the catalyst for many social ills. For example, when Greece’s economy tanked, US News and World Report wrote a story entitled, Survey: Greece seen as most corrupt in EU (Rising, 2012). The New York Times states that corruption within the Russian government is tied to both human rights violations and environmental devastation (Friedman, 2012). TIME Magazine blames the president of Haiti’s corrupt practices for much of the country’s continued suffering despite receiving so much foreign aid (Fieser, 2012). The Washington Post states that corruption within the Catholic Church is seen as a major contributor to the allegations that high-ranking church members ignored allegations of child molestation, putting thousands of children at risk of abuse. (Stevens-Arroyo, 2012). So with corruption leading to all these terrible outcomes, why does it continue to exist?

Corruption is never a preferred outcome. But like many other bitter pills, it must sometimes be swallowed for the greater good. Corruption is never the end that one wishes to achieve; instead it is the means to reach that end. I do not advocate corruption in every situation. Nevertheless, when corruption is a necessary means through which to achieve the greater goals of a society, it is ethically permissible.

1) What is corruption?

Whether one feels that corruption is ethically permissible is highly influenced by how one defines corruption in the first place. It leads one to ask, what does corruption look like? Prominent media outlets have labeled the Catholic Church, the Russian government under Putin, the president of Haiti, and the Greek government as all suffering from this devastating ailment. They are all corrupt. But, these are very different entities and individuals within these societies are charged with different crimes.  Some accept bribes, others ignore the needs of the people, and yet more just overall abuse their citizenry. So with such a myriad of sins constituting corruption, it can be difficult to nail down a definition. The Fight Against Corruption attempts to define corruption.  The article acknowledges that corruption is difficult to define. Yet, the authors do see some similar characteristics between so-called corrupt individuals. Corruption can be defined as “the misuse of public office for private ends or private gain” (Everett, Neu & Rahaman, 2006).

The above-mentioned article looked at corruption through a moral lens. An economist sees corruption in a different light. Ethics, Corruption, and Economic Gain defines corruption as being the “absence of economic freedom” (Eiras, 2003). People experience economic freedom when the government does not control the means of “production, distribution, or consumption of goods and services beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself” (Eiras, 2003). Economists measure corruption by considering the influence that the government has on the financial inputs and outputs of a nation. They look at issues such as the government’s trade policy, whether prices and wages or controlled, and investigate individual property rights. The more a government directly influences these markets through coercion, the higher that government will rank on a scale of corruption.

Though the two definitions do not appear to relate, there is a connection. Corrupt government officials use the money and power that comes from being in an elected office to control the economic opportunities of those around them. If a leader is embezzling money that would otherwise serve the citizenry, then they are in fact meeting both definitions of corruption. The same could be said if a leader is using government funds on projects that do not support the greater goals of the community. Whether or not corruption can be ethically justified is not solely determined by one’s definition of corruption. Instead, it is largely defined by the ethical standard by which you are judging behavior.

2) Utilitarian Justification for Corruption

When evaluating the ethics of corruption, a utilitarian would say that corruption is valid when it benefits more individuals in a society than it harms. Utilitarianism works towards achieving the largest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, saw the human psyche as being governed by two primary feelings: pleasure and pain. Under a utilitarian point of view, humans are driven towards maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the most individuals (Sandel, 2009).

Utilitarianism doesn’t judge morality by a predetermined set of ethical standards. There are no innate rights and wrongs. Instead actions are right when they maximize the most good for the greatest number of people; actions are wrong when they cause more pleasure than pain for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism measures all forms of pain and pleasure on a single scale. This measuring scheme is one of the chief criticisms of utilitarian theory.

A Utilitarian would say that corruption is good when it maximizes the independent pleasure of the populace on the whole but that it is not good when it creates pain for the majority. So from a utilitarian point of view, the results of corrupt behavior are determinative of whether or not corruption can be ethically permissible.  For example, the act of embezzlement can create great pleasure for a single family. However, if many more families suffer without the money that was stolen, then embezzlement can be said to generate more pain than pleasure. On the other hand, if an individual embezzles money that would otherwise go towards a government project that is already overfunded or if an individual steals a negligible amount of money from multiple sources, there might not be a lot of pain that results from the act. In fact, it is possible that no one would even notice.

Different studies have different opinions of what effect corruption has on economic growth. Some studies show that corrupt behavior like requiring bribes or embezzling money hinders economic growth because outside entities, who do not share corrupt practices, will be slow to invest in that environment.  Conversely, other studies show that these sorts of behaviors actually contribute to greater amounts of economic growth (Huant, 2012). Even when corruption does spur growth, it generally reduces wages across the populace. A Utilitarian would likely support economic growth in this context. Yes, the lowering of wages across the community would create pain for many individuals. There is also a possibility that the procedures that lead to the actions of corruption, such as the demanding of bribes, can create fear in the populace, which generates pain. Nonetheless, the greater availability of jobs across the community would create pleasure, especially for those who had previously been unable to find employment.  In this context, pleasure would likely outweigh pain. For this reason, a Utilitarian could justify corruption in certain contexts.

Rawls Social Contract Theory on Corruption

Locke argues that one tacitly signs a “social contract” by being a part of society. So though individuals are rarely asked to explicitly agree to follow the laws of society, each person is assumed to have given consent just by remaining in society. Rawls builds upon Locke’s theory by arguing that if each person were in a true position of equality, which he calls the “veil of ignorance,” they would choose to support the same principles within society (Sandel, 2009). All differing characteristics disappear behind this veil. One does not know whether one is rich or poor, black or white, religious or non-religious. Instead, individuals are forced to pick ideals that they feel will best suit their interests no matter which group they end up in. For instance, individuals behind the veil of ignorance would likely not support an institution like slavery. One does not know whether one will end up being the slave or the slave master. For this reason, it is unlikely that an individual would want to take the chance of supporting an institution that could, in effect, destroy all the individual’s chances of success. In other words, no one would want to take a chance on being the slave in this situation (Sandel, 2009).

Rawls argues that two principles would emerge from this theoretical social contract if individuals were truly given a choice.  First, a society would adopt a justice system that supports the basic liberties of the citizenry. This system would support values like freedom of speech and religion. Second, Rawls believes that society would adopt an economic system that promotes a relatively equal distribution of wealth among the citizenry. After all, if one is starting from a neutral equal starting ground, one never knows if he or she will end up as one of the poor. They would have an interest in ensuring that, even if they end up poor, they would have a reasonable quality of life (Sandel, 2009).

Sandel gives several examples of behavior that technically meets the qualifications of being corrupt but that works to the great benefit of the poor and ignorant. For example, Sandel tells a story about his two sons. They boys are several years apart in age. Both boys collect baseball cards and enjoy trading them. The older boy understands money and value much more so than his younger sibling. Therefore, he often trades his younger brother less valuable cards in exchange for more valuable cards.  The younger brother doesn’t understand what the cards were worth and is happy to appease his older brother. After several occurrences, Sandel stepped in and now requires his sons to show him which cards they are going to exchange before they are allowed to trade. This protects the interests of the youngest son and prevents him from being taken advantage of (Sandel, 2009).

Now imagine that Sandel’s oldest son was a regional government leader, his youngest son was the chief of an indigenous population, and Sandel was the national government leader. Who would be corrupt? Sandel’s oldest son would be taking advantage of his position as a government officer to better his own net-worth. Even if he was acquiring the land for the government, rather than for personal gain, there is an argument that he was bettering his own position politically by taking advantage of a local individual who does not have nearly as much bargaining power as the larger government entity. Sandel, as the national government, would be protecting the interests of a vulnerable population. However, if one accepts an economist’s definition of corruption, than Sandel could be the corrupt individual in this situation. Both parties consented to the uneven exchange. By stepping in and creating red tape, he is discouraging the regional government from buying land from the indigenous community. This prevents this community from gaining money which they would then spend which would likely fuel economic growth. By limiting the distribution of wealth and controlling the economic inputs and outputs of the society, Sandel could be considered a corrupt government official.

Despite the fact that he could arguably be participating in corrupt behavior, Sandel would certainly be upholding the principles of Rawls’ social contract. By protecting the rights of those who are less fortunate, whether economically or intellectually, Sandel is working towards a more even distribution of wealth. Sandel’s intervention prevents the wealthy and more knowledgeable from taking advantage of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It is likely that government intervention would likewise be effective in protecting other rights promoted by the social contract.

The US government has provisions that serve this purpose. These types of government interventions do technically interfere with the exchange of money throughout society.  The fact that they protect those who have lesser bargaining power, justifies this type of government control.  Though this type of government control is not traditionally called corruption, it is technically an example of a government controlling aspects of the distribution of wealth in a society.

It is likely that Rawls would say that corruption is unethical if it only benefits one individual as opposed to the entire society. But, if corruption within a society benefits the whole of the community rather than a few individuals, Rawls would likely say that corruption is ethical. Though he supports an egalitarian view of justice, he does not feel that the best should be hindered to support the weak. Instead, he says that the most talented individuals should be encouraged to do their best. These individuals must understand that their superior efforts will not bring them any more clout in society than the efforts of someone with mediocre talents will bring to them. The spoils of an individual’s superior talents would belong to the community rather than the individual. Enforcing this view of justice would require a rather large amount of government interference. Governments would interfere in the making of contracts and the distribution of goods to make sure that everyone is being treated equally.  An outsider, especially one with an American value system, would likely call this type of government corrupt. However, when government corruption takes the form of controlling economic interactions within a society for the purposes of protecting the weak, Rawls would likely declare that this form of corruption in fact ethical (Sandel, 2009).

How should a society deal with corruption?

Corruption is not always detrimental to societies. Especially within developing countries, corruption can create a vehicle for economic growth. Corruption can lead to faster processing times and can provide incentives for individuals to work harder in society. However, corruption does have its limitations. Though it can lead to more jobs, it often lowers wages. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in several Asian countries (Huant, 2012). Also, because corruption can take many forms, not every corrupt behavior leads to more jobs in society. Corruption can hinder growth and create massive poverty and limited accountability. Even though corruption is not always an unethical practice, an ideal economic system does not require corrupt behavior to be successful.

Traditionally, societies have been encouraged to handle corrupt behavior through the criminal justice system. In America, government leaders are required to submit budgets that show exactly where the government is spending taxpayer funds. If an individual is found to have overstepped his or her authority, they can lose their job and even face criminal prosecution. The criminal justice system largely controls corruption within the American government but it is not always an effective means of controlling corrupt behavior in other places.

It seems that the best way to control corruption within a society is to eliminate the need for corruption. I believe that if individuals feel that they can accomplish their goals through legal means, they will do so. But if the legal machine repeatedly dashes their attempts at being successful, they will resort to other measures. Corruption is most widespread in the developing world, where individuals often struggle to meet their basic human needs. When one is desperate for food, water, shelter, or basic healthcare, one is much more likely to resort to corruption to gain access to these things. If one’s basic needs are readily being met, one is more likely to have the time and resources to go through legal means to access what one needs.

When I consider corruption, I am reminded of a man that lived in my community when I was a small child. He worked at a large rock quarry and drove a delivery truck. He hauled coal, granite, and fuel out to various work sites. He also served as an informal Robin Hood in our community. He stole thousands of dollars worth of coal, gas, and other resources from his job. In turn, he sold them privately at a fraction of the cost. When asked about his behavior, he would say that he felt it was a shame that the company had all those resources and there were people in our community who were freezing and he wouldn’t stand for it. He did make a profit on the material that he sold. But his prices were significantly lower than other legitimate businesses in the area. Eventually, he was caught and he lost his job. Though he was not a government official, he was participating in a type of corrupt behavior. He was stealing from his employer and selling materials for a personal profit. However, without his intervention, many individuals in our community who could not afford to buy materials from larger companies would not have had gas to heat their houses.

If natural gas prices were more affordable, then no one would have had to go to that man to purchase fuel to heat their houses.  If community governments gave out vouchers to help individuals make it through the colder months, then no one would have bought the stolen materials. The system was not serving the basic needs a large sector of the community and, therefore, people were forced to turn to corruptive behaviors to gain what they needed. I feel that fixing the system is the only way of combating corruption effectively. It’s true that corruption can lead to increased income inequality but it can also increase economic growth. When one is struggling, a low paying job is better than nothing at all.

Ideally, government actors would be held accountable for the living standards of the population. There should be mandatory government programs that would ensure that everyone’s basic needs could be met in a society. Furthermore, government entities would be required to perform frequent audits that would ensure that systems work efficiently and individuals would not have to resort to actions like bribing to get things done in a timely manner. If the institutional issues that breed corruption in the first place are repaired, corruption will die without any further assistance.



 Corruption is not an innately unethical practice. Both proponents of utilitarianism and proponents of social contract theory could find an ethical basis to support corruption in certain situations. However, corruption does limit the success of a population by creating greater social inequality. For this reason, corruption is not usually a long-term solution for economic growth. To control corruption in a society, government entities should eliminate the conditions that made corruption an issue in the first place. Corruption develops in communities where individuals don’t feel like they can access what they need through legitimate means. Therefore, they are more likely to turn to illegal practices. Government officials are more likely to abuse their power in government structures that do not hold them accountable for their behavior. If officials feel they will lose their power and influence through corruptive practices, they are more likely to avoid corrupt behavior. By promoting basic standards of living across all sectors of society, societies can work towards a day when corruption is no longer needed.




Eiras, A. I. (2003). Ethics. corruption, and economic freedom. Heritage Lectures, 813, 1-6.


Everett, J., Neu, D., & Rahaman, A. S. (2006). The global fight against corruption: A foucaultian, virtues-ethics framing. Journal of Business Ethics, 65, 1-12.


Fieser, E. (2012, April 14). A year under Martelly: Corruption controversy sidetracks Haiti’s effort to rebuild. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2112023,00.html


Friedman, M. (2012, August 18). For russians, corruption is just a way of life. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/for-russians-corruption-is-just-a-way-of-life.html?_r=0


Huant, C. (2012). Corruption, economic growth, and income inequality: Evidenc efrom ten countries in asia. World Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology, 66, 354-358.


Rising, D. (2012, December 05). Survey: Greece seen as most corrupt in EU. Retrieved from www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2012/12/05/survey-greece-seen-as-most-corrupt-in-eu


Sandel , M. J. (2009). Justice: What’s the right thing to do?. (pp. 31-166). New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Stevens-Arroyo, A. (2012, April 23). Is the church corrupt?. Retrieved from Fieser, E. (2012, April 14). A year under martelly: Corruption controversy sidetracks haiti’s effort to rebuild. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2112023,00.html

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