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Corruption, The Great Enabler Or Tool Of Injustice?


By David Nair

Some authors – particularly economists – have adopted a narrow and inadequate definition of corruption that has led to skewed measures of its influence and biased policy recommendations. For instance, the classic text on the subject by Robert A. Dahl observes the extent to which money, power and money can take away from their intended purpose in society

Thus, we may describe the function of ‘corruption’ as an enabler for injustice because it allows a group of people who would otherwise be powerless to take advantage of limited powers. (The author goes on to note that these forms of oppression are “greater evils than the original evil” and that “every evil is rooted in the greater good, not vice.”)

In other words, Dahl’s formulation is a partial account; he does give some examples of how bad actors use both personal funds and property resources in ways that go beyond what might be regarded as legitimate uses. Still, Dahl’s interpretation does a poor job of distinguishing between actual corruption and pure theft and embezzlement; there’s no reason why private ownership and individual use cannot sometimes be tainted with fraudulent activity

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

We must also acknowledge the important importance of money-to-money transfers and payments; the former is largely an economic phenomenon and the latter one is political, but Dahl’s book is lacking in covering either of those aspects. His analysis of such transactions is limited to a handful of cases: none so far. It does acknowledge that money transfers can generate positive social change at their cost, although only via “fraudulent and illegal means.” That seems like an unsatisfied promise to many readers. His view is that money transfers must be distinguished from all other forms of bribery and other corrupt practices. Yet, his discussion of the two approaches to corruption misses the point in distinguishing between these types of transfer – specifically, whether they should be treated as separate entities or as part of the larger spectrum of bribery that constitutes official and informal agreements. As it stands now, Dahl essentially assumes these transactions are different from each other, yet they share characteristics that suggest commonality. While Dahl describes corruption (as opposed to theft) as being an enabler (or tool), I believe his approach suggests corruption can be used as a tool when appropriate. To get to that conclusion, Dahl must first clarify what he means by evil, fairness, virtuousness and prosperity.

In order to understand Dahl’s description of ethics and politics, we need to understand the concept of evil. Generally, evil refers to the violation of moral principles and unjustified harm, whereas good is defined as benefiting others and upholding justice. If all else fails, then what makes someone evil? Well, if you were to look at someone like Adolf Hitler, evil is clearly evident. He killed millions and did nothing to alleviate human suffering and injustice. This is what evil is according to Dahl. What can we learn about ethics? Well, it turns out that we don’t know much, at least until we begin reading. But let me illustrate by explaining the idea behind Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. Is it just to kill a person to fulfill your responsibility to him and do no wrong? Does it make sense to kill a neighbor for helping a sick child at home? There may be more ethical objections to killing a victim for failing to help a sick family member, however the underlying principle doesn’t alter. You must treat others as you would want to be treated if the circumstances allowed. When confronted with this dilemma, neither ethical objections nor moral arguments can save you. So, there is no “answer” here. Even if the world were perfect where evil was eradicated and good was realized, you wouldn’t be able to achieve goodness all the time – even if everyone lived equally and respected everyone else. As to how to best live, the answer is simply to live virtuously and avoid committing evil. We don’t know how much good each of us possesses all over again until the day we die, unless perhaps the Gods themselves decide. And, the gods don’t just choose. Every second the universe existed before our birth, at least 5,000 years to be exact. Which, in turn, means we were likely responsible for all of it. Therefore, God didn’t tell us how to act all along, but rather which actions to engage in and which to avoid. According to Plato, we should strive to avoid committing evil or doing anything against the will of the laws of nature. How is this supposed to be achieved? After all, it takes a lot of courage – and there is no other way to know what is right or wrong except to examine our own conduct and see if we seem to be falling into the category of the evil things (or, if we’re going all darkly, doing something against the law)

This implies, quite possibly that we aren’t free to choose what is true or wrong; all we can do is to follow the laws we have been given; and, therefore, we should act against what is good. At the same time, we are free to choose what we want to do or what we want to be, but then we are faced with another question: is doing something against the law possible? Again, the answer depends upon our perspective. Do we think of the Laws of Nature as immutable facts, something that never change and never violate anyone else? Or do we see them in terms of values, not as something binding upon ourselves, but upon which our decisions will hinge? My point is what is good or bad must depend upon what we consider most valuable. The laws of nature aren’t necessarily written in stone, so maybe it isn’t really fair to judge an action or behavior with a certain amount of weight based on rules we have been given; perhaps they could be changed. Maybe a law of nature doesn’t even exist. One thing is sure it exists: justice. So, where is that line? I think, we are left in a somewhat awkward position: should we think of morals as laws of nature? Should we think of morality as a law unto itself? Or should we find somewhere around middle ground – one that takes care of other things besides yourself – without sacrificing too much of yourself. That is, we don’t see moral obligations as being a threat to oneself. Rather, as a challenge to become better than we were yesterday.

To me, Aristotle’s Theory of Justice is exactly what justice is. Justices are called for because they are always just – meaning they always have the ability to recognize an obligation and decide whether or not they can fulfill it; that way they are accountable for their actions. They are “honest.” They “do right,” just out of their duty, regardless of their opinion or how it affects them. And, while we may not have had any real system of judges in ancient Greece, we have made up our mind what justice is and what we feel we know that justice is. Aristotle’s theory is an attempt to capture that reality. Nowadays, what we call ‘justice’ is often interpreted differently depending on the situation. However, the foundation of justice is known to us and we are aware of the general rule of what we consider our basic human rights. Our Declaration of Rights and Freedoms clearly delineates rights and freedoms, but Aristotle’s idea of ‘justice’ involves making judgments about the very nature of the choices involved. The difference is that Aristotle’s idea of ‘justice’ is applicable to all occasions; this includes deciding if the consequences we undertake are in accordance with the law of society, regardless of the outcome. Let’s say we have decided that murder is unacceptable; our task then becomes choosing who we want to prosecute for the crime. Are we willing to prosecute a murderer, or would it be morally right for us to prosecute a student whose schoolwork is outstanding? Would it be okay for us to pursue the case further? Then, in the end, there’s no one to prosecute for a crime against any particular individual; it depends upon what we deem acceptable. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, but they don’t affect our decision to prosecute. This is analogous to the scenario presented by John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism in the 18th century, wherein, having just considered two courses of action, what is ultimately the one that will enable the greatest happiness for us all? We only have two options here, right or wrong. One is right, and the other is wrong! This is the fundamental argument of Mill’s Utilitarianism and arguably the foundation of modern justice. The conclusion is this: what is right is usually just. What is wrong is sometimes just. But, does that mean that justice is completely illogical? Why do we not believe the famous saying “justice is blind”? Isn’t we saying that most of any moral action violates the Law of Nature? I believe one thing, though: we are saying that those actions are immoral, and that therefore they are not justified. On its face, this sounds absolutely terrifying – but this is just a form of reasoning, like saying that if a horse is not fit to pull a carriage, no matter how much you like it, ride it or drive it, because it is unable to maintain the standard of health or safety, it is therefore not worth trying. Not wanting to bring a horse into disrepute is, of course.

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