What is normative about Corruption being a hindrance to development?

While translating Russell L. Ackoff, you say that such a translation is “not a moral judgment now, but a statement about the state of the economy”. But your claim, according to Ackoff’s own argument, is untrue.

1. Consider how he describes corruption: “We concluded that corruption occurs when one party, A (for example, a policeman), who has an obligation to a second party, B (for example, the government), to provide service to a third party, C (for example, a member of the public), serves C in such a way as to benefit A more than he or she is supposed to. In addition, anyone who induces another to behave corruptly is corrupt. Therefore, corruption is the exploitation for one’s personal benefit of a position in which one is expected to serve others.”

B (the policeman) has an obligation to serve C (a member of the public) and this obligation is a moral obligation; A has a derived moral obligation to serve C because A is under the moral obligation to do what B (the government) expects him to. A violates his moral obligation to B because as a part of B, he serves C in such a way that A benefits more, that is, A’s (moral) abuse of his position makes him receive more benefits than he morally deserves. (What A deserves by virtue is serving C is a moral reward.) In this sense, Ackoff is making a moral claim.

2. Ackoff does not consider his description merely as an economic judgment. As he himself says, “the immorality of corruption is not nearly as bothersome to me as is its obstructiveness to development.” He is not bothered by the ‘immorality’ of corruption even though it bothers him that it obstructs development.

3. Which development? Probably economic development. Why should this bother him? Because, probably, he finds it ethically good that there is economic development. So, corruption is immoral in an additional way: it prevents the ethically good (because it is ethically desirable) from taking place. So, his judgment is not factual but deeply normative.

4. Ackoff does not deny (apparently) that ‘development’ also has an ‘ethical-moral’ and ‘aesthetic’ dimension, both being normative, when he says that the ‘continuous pursuit of development’ expresses these aspects. Or even he speaks about “legitimate” needs and desires: what is ‘legitimate’ is, of course, something that is not merely ‘legal’ (a legally enacted measure could be judged illegitimate) but also ‘ethically defensible’: curtailing the freedom of press, even if done legally, could be considered illegitimate by appealing to the notions of freedom or to the charter on human rights. That is, ethical considerations are used to speak of legitimacy or illegitimacy.

5. Ackoff’s notion of ‘power-to’ and the way he speaks out the legitimate needs and desires of others circumscribing limits of one’s own desires and needs is not new: for centuries, philosophies of Law have been discussing the notion of ‘rights’ in a similar fashion. Because they have gone much further than the anecdotal account that Ackoff gives, there is no lesson here, I am afraid. The same also applies to his distinction between the meaning of ‘growth’ and ‘development’: indeed, one can distinguish between these two meanings in certain contexts by giving different definitions of these words. For example, the ‘growth’ of cancer can either be defined as a stage in the ‘development’ of cancer or as something distinct from the ‘development’ of cancer or as something co-extensive with the ‘development’ of cancer. So, what point is being made?

6. When he says the ‘immorality’ of corruption does not bother him, he probably has something like the following picture in mind. If something is immoral then it is because some or another act violates some or another moral rule. However, not all need to subscribe to one and the same set of moral rules. It is easily conceivable that one has a set of moral rules where it is ‘good’ to be immoral. (This is his meta-understanding of morality.) So, he says, he is not bothered by that. In the subsequent phase of the argument, he introduces a part of his own moral notions and simply assumes that it is either ‘factual’ or ‘universal’, the latter in the sense that ‘it ought to universally hold’. What to universally hold is that ‘development’ is morally good and morally desirable and that everyone ought to find ‘development’ good. That is because the notion of ‘development’ itself is a part of moral vocabulary: one ought to prefer ‘development’ to ‘underdevelopment’.

7. He is familiar with his way of talking and assumes that such a familiarity makes it factual because it does not seem to be formulated (in his mind and explicitly) as a set of explicit moral rules: neither the Bible nor the Torah says ‘you ought to develop’. His naiveté does not, of course, transform his claim into factual ones. (Here, he works at an object-level and believes that just because he has a meta-position on morality, he is now free of all moral considerations.)

8. If you suggest that one can define the word ‘corruption’ in a non-normative way, I agree with you: one can define a word any way one feels like. I never dispute definitions. (There exist many such definitions of corruption in the literature. The idea that corruption is a hindrance to development is also very old: Gunnar Myrdal wrote volumes on this issue in his ‘The Asian Drama’ in the sixties. Since then, many have attempted to define ‘development’ itself in non-normative terms and describe corruption as a process that hinders ‘development’ defined non-normatively. Some have also argued just the opposite based on the same grounds as an efficient way of distributing scarce resources. For literature on corruption, see my article on ‘colonialism and colonial consciousness’. ) However, this was not the issue at stake in the discussions on the Sulekha board. The issue was the presence of normative dimensions in our judgments about corruption in India.

9. If one wants to develop the story about corruption either by using a criterion of failure or by having an analogy akin to the corrosion of bridges or as a systemic failure (based, in some way, on the engineering of societies and organizations), etc one has to do more than provide a stipulative definition of corruption: one has to have a theory of how societies function on the basis of which one could then develop some or another factual standard or criterion. At the moment, no one in the world has such a theory. Thus, the discussion is either about definitions, which is uninteresting as far as I am concerned, or about making sense of our language-use, which is normative in nature.