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Does pragmatism subvert the fight against corruption?


To: Wolfgang O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner?
Subject: Does pragmatism subvert the fight against corruption?
Date: 17 January 2008 14:01

Dear Wolfgang,

Thank you for your email of 8 January, with your second submission for the Ethical Dilemmas program, entitled 'Does Pragmatism Subvert the Fight against Corruption?' and your email of 10 January with your comments on unit 3.

I am hoping to send unit 4 to you early next week. I am still recovering from the backlog of work which accumulated over Christmas/ New Year.

Next Monday, I am being honoured by a visit by Tom Veblen (who has contributed several articles to Philosophy for Business) and his wife. They are spending a week in London and are taking the train up to Sheffield for the day. I will let you know how our talks went.

Unit 3

Your point about doping amongst professional cyclists is well taken. The fact that the majority take the view that doping is OK, does not make doping OK. It is as simple as that. The majority can be wrong. This is so, whether one's foundational view of ethics is subjectivist or objectivist.

The more difficult question is what criterion one applies to determine whether we are dealing with a case where something is right and is judged to be right, or a case where something is wrong despite the fact that it is sincerely judged to be right.

Consider the case of slavery. The great philosophers of Ancient Greece never said a word against it. It would have been considered perverse to question the institution of slavery. It is all about ownership and the rightful spoils of war. Or they would point out the conditions that many human beings exist today in countries which claim to have abolished slavery. What is the difference?

The question how one decides rights or wrongs wasn't the main theme of unit 3. However, it is impossible to avoid the question, as soon as one looks at explanations of why a person 'fails to do' the right thing. You can do wrong, and 'know' you are doing wrong. Or you can do wrong and sincerely believe you are doing right.

As I have explained in earlier units, I don't accept that the aim of ethical theory is to provide a criterion for judging rights and wrongs which can be applied in every case. (That's why I am not, for example, a utilitarian.) Rather, it is a contribution to making us better at making these judgements, through thought and reflection and the practice of the Socratic art of 'dialectic'.

Pragmatism and the fight against corruption

Your essay raises two fundamental questions: what is a realistic, achievable target, in fighting against endemic corruption? and does a person who wishes to do the right thing decide how to respond, e.g. when they are asked to pay a bribe?

The two questions are closely linked, because if we don't have an answer to the second question, then the chances of a realistic target in the fight against corruption seem pretty hopeless.

As you suggest, there has to be some middle ground between straightforward refusal to give a bribe under any circumstances and acquiescence: some action that the individual inspired by the principles of organizations like Transparency International can perform with a reasonable chance of success. The possibility of middle ground does not, however, imply that it is always present in every case.

You cite the example of the Muscovite workers demanding money for cigarettes and alcohol. You could only say, 'Yes' or 'No'.

However, I can think of some further alternatives:

- Say 'Yes' and give the supervisor and his workers a strong lecture on the evils of bribery (I agree, not much point, but it is better than simply acquiescing).

- Say 'Yes' and later blow the whistle - write a strongly worded letter to the Government Department involved, or publish an article, etc. (in effect, this is what you have done).

- Say 'No' and threaten to blow the whistle (this might work in some cases where the corrupt practice is not deeply engrained and you can rely on the law to punish any corruption which is brought to light).

- Say 'No' and drive the lorry to the front of the Ministerial Building, then explain to anyone who asks why you did this (again, it might work, e.g. in the UK where the power of the press can be harnessed by a planned 'publicity stunt').

It is all about strategy and tactics. I would not call this 'pragmatism' because this implies a mere willingness to do the expedient thing, whereas we see ourselves as fighting for something we believe.

Doing the right thing has a cost. If it didn't, everyone would do the right thing. On the other hand, we do not demand that individuals sacrifice themselves, or their ability to provide a livelihood for their families.

Consider this analogy: if a bank robber points a gun at you, then you have to hand over the money in the till. You have done nothing wrong in handing over the money. One should look at the worst examples of bribery as the equivalent of having a gun pointed at one's head. But not all examples are like this. Whenever there is a better choice available, one is under an ethical obligation to make that choice.

This suggests that one thing that TI can do to improve the situation is give detailed practical advice on how to deal, e.g. with demands for bribes in particular countries. Write manuals or handbooks for people doing trade e.g. with Nigeria or Libya. It is not enough just to have a strategy for overcoming corruption, or to make inspiring speeches or give awards, if there are no tactical resources available to call upon when the need arises.

All the best,