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A philosophical analysis of the corruption phenomenon

Filed under: Corruption,Philosophy — Tags: , — Davor @ 19:34

In this series of blogs you will find a short version of my Master dissertation titled “Een filosofische analyse van het corruptiefenomeen”, or in English: “A philosophical analysis of the corruption phenomenon”. It expounds on what I think is one of the biggest problems of the current corruption-discourse: the conception of corruption itself. Why? Because corruption today is a blown up phenomenon where all sorts of things are shuffled underneath. This is my premise. And the consequences of this are far-reaching.

So what to expect from reading through? In my thesis I used examples and thought-experiments as a guide for the conceptual analysis. I think the examples in themselves are informative, even though you might not agree with my conclusions. Another element is Searle’s conceptualization of institutions which is very informative and highly useful in the context of institutional corruption.

Note: The original summary (based on the thesis) is written in Dutch and can be found here. I didn’t have time to translate it all. Currently, only a short description of corruption and the main problem are translated. If you (or someone you know, like Google Translate) know Dutch you can read the Dutch summary or the thesis itself.


Corruption is an universal phenomenon, independent of social system, age, position or class. It is also a very old phenomenon. Already in writings dating from Babylonia, 2250 BC, one finds traces of corruption. (Wab08: 38-9, 160) But corruption probably never was a hot issue as it is today. (Jos09: 5) Burgeoning global media has undoubtedly contributed to this. But many developments in the last thirty years have contributed also. These include the major corruption scandals, the end of the cold war and some globalization trends.

All this fuss about corruption is not without a reason. (cf. Jos09: 56) Bribery is probably the most researched form of corruption. Its consequences are estimated in various studies that focus on local and global economies, political and social domains. It’s economic costs are staggering. As an example: World Bank (Mos97) estimated that about 5% of the value of imports in developing countries are bribes to officials. This results in some 50-80 billion dollar loss in economic growth per year. A common consequence of such form of corruption are “white elephant” projects. Such projects are very large, grease well, and are buried short after completion because they are completely unnecessary from the public perspective. As an example of scale, Moody-Stuart (Moo96) notes that projects under $2,000,000 rarely attract attention of senior officials. Bribery has also the tendency to opt for specific industries. There is for example evidence (Lam06: 32-3) that corruption reduces government spending on education, contrary to military and defense.

Corruption goes further than just the economic and political sphere. Wabanhu (Wab08) emphasizes on many occasions that corruption erodes patters of morality and civic virtue which comprise the foundations of ethics and which are necessary to maintain human rights and dignity of an equitable community. In short, corruption erodes the patterns that generally promote the good of a community.

Despite the fact that corruption is broadly considered a problem and has led to the emergence of various developments, ranging from protests and international treaties, to national and international organizations like Transparency International, it still remains a debatable subject. So what’s “wrong” with concept of corruption?

The problem: the premise

For one, the concept of corruption in contemporary literature is vague and hardly explored. Most authors start from a general understanding of corruption, supported by the common definitions. But it is precisely these often quoted definitions that give us a too narrow view on corruption. (Jos09: 23) And that’s not all: we haven’t even considered their diversity! Wabanhu (Wab08: 15) notes in this context that there are almost as many definitions of corruption as there are authors who write about it. Now, the consequences of this conceptual chaos are far-reaching. Consider the following questions:

  • What is corruption all those empirical studies are referring to? If the main subject of research is dubiously defined, what about the results and implications of such research? Do these implications have any scientific value? This question begs for a clear definition, which we will try to give.
  • What do we restrict with the so-called anti-corruption measures? This is a very important question because the corruption countermeasures are established on basis of a particular understanding of that which has to be restricted (i.e. corruption). We will explore this issue, it’s possibly undesirable consequences, and give examples.
  • Is the carrot and stick approach sufficient to combat corruption? Some say yes, some say no, based on their particular conception of corruption. We will explore the differences, and point where it possibly goes wrong.
  • And why fight corruption at all? This might sound funny, but there actually are authors who defend it. Well, assuming their arguments do have a rational ground, where exactly do they differ from the antagonists, and most importantly, what can we learn from these differences?

It is in large part due to this conceptual chaos that today such questions have no clear answer. So the question “what exactly is corruption?” becomes more and more pressing. For us this question represents the start of our paper where we try to build a conceptual framework that allows us to understand corruption.

For two, we all associate bribery, extortion, nepotism and fraud with corruption, but the problem is that this association is ambiguous. (Jos09: 19) For example, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that if person X bribes someone, person X is also corrupt. Likewise nepotic practices are not necessarily considered corrupt. Same applies to extortion and fraud. Conversely, it is not necessary that all forms of corruption take one of the preceding forms. Corruption may also have to do with commissioning, rewarding, influencing, etc. In short we can say that the four terms are neither sufficient nor necessary elements of corruption (i.e. we do not have a logical equivalence between them.) However, these elements certainly have their usefulness. In the first instance we note nepotism, bribery or such, and only in the second instance we speculate on whether or not it is corruption. In what follows we try to setup a normative framework for such speculation. And how exactly do we do that?

The method of analysis (Jos09: 22)

In a nutshell this is how we do it: We first look at the widespread corruption literature and the use of concept corruption in different contexts, namely the economic, legal, socio-cultural, managerial, political, public and moral. Accordingly, through thought experiments we distill a number of key elements. Them being: perversion, the institution, the corruptor and morality. Then we do the inverse: We try to underpin these key elements in the existing corroborated theories to get, in addition to the descriptive component, also a normative element. This will give us a conceptualization of corruption that can be used as an analytical instrument. By conceptualization we mean the exclusive and sufficient conditions which are both non-circular and informative. So let us start with the first element (to be continued…).


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Caiden, E. Gerald (1977). ‘Administrative Corruption’ in Public Administration Review, Vol. 37, Nr. 3, p301-309
———- (1981). ‘Public maladministration and bureaucratic corruption’ in Hong Kong Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 3, Nr. 1, p56-71

Gert, Bernard (2008). ‘The Definition of Morality’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jos09: http://davor.no-ip.com:1983/Philosophy/Papers/Master/Dissertation/Davor,%20HERZIENE%20EDITIE,%20Een%20filosofische%20analyse%20van%20het%20corruptiefenomeen,%202009,%20v1.2.pdf

Lambsdorff, Johann Graf (2006). ‘Causes and consequences of corruption: What do we know from a cross-section of countries’ in Susan Rose-Ackerman (ed.), International handbook on the economics of corruption (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar), p3-51

Mauss, Marcel (2002). The Gift, trans. Mary Douglas (London, Routledge) [Oorspronkelijke uitgave (1950): Essai sur le don]

Miller, Seumas (2001). Social Action: A Teleological Account (Cambridge, Cambridge university press)
———- e.a. (2005a). Corruption and Anti-Corruption: A Study in Applied Philosophy (New Jersey, Prentice Hall)
———- (2005b). ‘Corruption’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
———- (2007a). ‘Social Institutions’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
———- (2007b). ‘Corruption, institutions and transcultural interaction’ in Helen James (ed.), Civil society, religion and global governance (London, Routledge), p130-146

Moody-Stuart, George (1996) “The Good Business Guide to Bribery: Grand Corruption in Third World Development” in Uganda International Conference on Good Governance in Africa (Mweya Lodge: The Inspectorate of Government, Government of Uganda)

Moss, Nicholas (1997). “Who Bribes Wins” in The European, 11 December 1997.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality (London, Allen Lane The penguin press)
———- (2005). ‘What is an institution?’ in Journal of Institutional Economics, Vol. 1, Nr. 1, p1-22

Smith, Barry & John Searle (2003). ‘An Illuminating Exchange: The Construction of Social Reality’ in American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 62, Nr. 1, p285-309

Thompson, Dennis F. (1995). Ethics in Congress: from individual to institutional corruption (Washington D.C., Brookings Institution)

Verhezen, Peter (2005). Gifts and Bribes: An Essay on the Limits of Reciprocity (Leuven, K.U.Leuven Hoger instituut voor wijsbegeerte)

Wabanhu, Emanuel (2008). Confronting Corporate Corruption: A Virtue Ethics Approach (Leuven, K.U.Leuven Faculteit Godgeleerdheid)

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