Ethically Bad Action vs. Corruption—S.N.Balagangadhara

1. The ‘corruption’ refers to the social phenomenon in India which makes about 20% of the adult population into immoral people. When I said that I refuse to call the clerk ‘corrupt’ or that the issue I raise is anterior, I am talking about this phenomenon. One uses the word ‘cheating’ (something like the Hindi ‘Dhoka’ probably). One could, for instance, use this word to describe the individual action of the clerk as an unethical one without making it into corruption.

Are these two conversationally synonymous? I suppose it depends on the person with whom you are having a conversation, the context and the language used.

Why is this distinction useful? This article tries to show that some logical conclusions (about our social structure, about the nature of ethics) follow if we use the word ‘corruption’ the way it is used to describe the Indian society. I am not willing to buy any of them. That is why I resist using the word corruption to describe the action of the municipal clerk or the building contractor or whoever else. This is the first reason. (I use a variant of the reductio et absurdum argument to show why we better make the distinction.)

There is a second reason. Let us continue using the examples of the clerk or the building contractor or a telephone linesman. The bribes you pay do not merely line the pockets of these individuals without them being distributed within the hierarchy of whatever organization to which these people belong (the clerk and the linesman) or the one to whom (say the assistant engineer) the contractor has paid. You do realize, of course, that there is an enormous integrity within this hierarchy. The bribes are distributed among the relevant people in a very honest way. Not only that. Once one pays the bribe, one feels that one is morally entitled to the service one has paid a bribe for. The one who receives the bribe also feels that he is morally obligated to provide you with the necessary service once he has received the bribe. You are not cheated from this entitlement once you have paid the bribe. What you get is what you pay for. These index the extraordinary integrity of the bribe-receiving structures. In fact, these individuals lose their credibility and trustworthiness (look at the words I am using) if they do not perform after they have received the bribe. That is, a tremendous trust and honesty is required from both the parties. It is almost as though that in this ‘perverse’ (these scare quotes are red flags) system, there is an extraordinary honesty and integrity. Why, if they were corrupt, could they not tell you to take a hike after they receive bribes? Because, the so-called corruption works if and only if those who are ‘corrupt’ are honest and reliable!

The above is the second side to the so-called corruption in the Indian society. What I am trying to do is make us realize that, because the so-called corruption involves both honesty and bribes, to figure out what this phenomenon is requires that we go beyond mere ethical characterizations the way the western culture uses them.

To repeat myself, let us first find out what this phenomenon is which involves both these dimensions. To simply call it corruption not only has implausible consequences but also blinds us to the issues.

These are two of the reasons why I want to distinguish between ethically bad action and corruption. There are more, but they are irrelevant in the present context.

2. Precisely because I was talking to a non-western, and presumably an Indian audience, I did not speak of the second aspect to corruption. To a western audience, that would have been my first point. In a very simplified fashion, I would have said, using the word corruption to describe a social phenomenon in India leads one to say the following: Indian society is corrupt if and only if the ‘corrupt’ Indians are individually ethically good. (Each ‘corrupt’ individual has to be extraordinarily ethical, if corruption has to work at a social level.) However, a ‘corrupt’ individual cannot be ethically good. The problem I have had with the western audience is that they do not believe that corruption ‘works’. They are simply hung up on its alleged immorality.