The question is whether corruption is always morally/ethically wrong.

To set up the premise, let me start with some examples. In third world countries (I'm from one myself, so I can speak from experience) many people, who live below poverty line, can only earn some living by means of corruption. There can be many examples of this but here's one: say, in certain areas of some city street vending is not allowed, but the vendors, ignoring such regulations anyway. Or they may sometime do it without going through the hassle of obtaining bureaucratic permission. This may not be a perfect example but this does show the point that breaking rules and regulations on a systemic scale (if we can call that corruption) for mere livelihood. Maybe a better example yet are those of the low ranking bureaucrats themselves who are generally prone to bribery because their work does not pay them much. Another example might be that of the people, who are poor, not ever buying train tickets while travelling and undertaking all sorts of measure to avoid being caught by the ticket checkers. Third worlds can be full of these minute corruptions, and the first world countries (never being in one) I can only guess, there might also be some sort of corruptions as well up to certain extent. (I didn't have to say this, but, I'll: I am not suggesting that 'all poor people are corrupt' neither I am suggesting that 'only poverty is the causal agent for corruption')

Now, there I believe can be two perspectives on this: a) teleological and b) deontological. A teleological perspective may say at the end the people, who otherwise wouldn't be able to make a living, is being able to thus it is not wrong. A deontological perspective would, of course, object to the wrongness of the acts themselves without worrying about what happens to those people if they follow the 'right' set of regulations set for them by the other well-meaning members of their society.

A naïve utilitarian thinking may lead us to think that such minute corruptions are ultimately doing 'good' for a greater number of people (as there are more people below the poverty line in a third world country) and therefore, those acts are not morally and by that extension not legally wrong (as if I remember correctly, Bentham, indeed though with some flaws, later to be objected by Mills and other, developing the utilitarian principle as a legal doctrine rather than as a moral doctrine per se). However, it is arguable that such commonplace occurrence of corruption and nobody's willingness to do something about it, if becomes 'habit' of the population or if the population forgets to call out corruption for what it is, may lead to a snowball-like effect and every strata of the society and bureaucracy may replete with corruption, as is the case for many third world countries. Thus, allowing such minute corruptions would do more harm than good and therefore such corruptions are morally wrong.

Another thought is that if corruption is a natural tendency of a human living in an 'unfair' society can it be justified to hold people morally culpable who lives on the 'unfair' extremes of our society, i.e., does a broken society gets to hold people responsible for their corruption if the act itself is prompted by the brokenness of the society itself (yes, I am considering poverty as the 'brokenness' of the societies).

I would like to hear other thoughts and criticisms. Thank you.

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    It is hard to defend that one can only earn some living by means of corruption. The alternatives may not be great in "unfair society", but they do exist, so it is hard to give a deontological justification. "Poor but honest" has been a source of dignity for many people. It is easier with utilitarianism, but even then a salient question is whether one is also doing something to remedy the unfair conditions and/or find a better way, or just gaming the system and acquiescing along the path of least resistance.
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2020 at 7:56
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    The overall corruption has a negative impact on growth, unless there is a minimal amount of uncertainty. Furthermore, the negative effect of corruption becomes larger in magnitude with higher levels of uncertainty. papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3107341
    – user47436
    Sep 23, 2020 at 9:35
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    Shrabani Saha and Kunal Sen find that corruption which allows for greater economic freedom can be good for investments and growth. But the effects of this type of corruption will be largely determined by the state of democracy in the country.wider.unu.edu/publication/…
    – user47436
    Sep 23, 2020 at 9:39
  • I would argue that there is a difference between families selling Led Zeppelin CDs to eat (copyright infringement), and well, say, selling alcohol illegally (not a mild example at all, but a relatively lighter one than many). Sep 23, 2020 at 10:50

2 Answers 2


So we often use the word "corruption" to think of it as something that has happened to a person or group to render them unfit for office - one has been "corrupted" by power, and their actions taken in pursuit of their own ends bear the hallmarks of a moral ill.

" [...] from com- (“together”) + rumpere (“to break in pieces”) [...] " ~ https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/corrupt

But the etymology points to a different meaning, being the prefix "co-" (meaning "together") and the root "rupt" (meaning "break", as in rupture or interrupt). One does not "corrupt" as an act on one's own - corrupting is something done by two or more, in that they are in a sense co-conspirators in the breaking of laws, social conventions or institutions.


So one answer to your question would be to simply suggest that your puzzle around corruption reduces to the general question of whether it is always immoral to break the law/social order. I affirm the negative to this latter point - laws and social orders can be injust, and morally deserving of opposition, and if it can be moral to break them alone, then surely it might also be possible that it could in some instances be moral to break them in conspiracy.

  • I like the answer. However, I do not think 'conspiracy' is a requirement for corruption. But rather a systematic nature is necessary. If an individual alone breaks rules, it's not corruption, I agree. However, if many people simultaneously or systematically but even uncorrelatedly breaks the same rule, it can pass the 'co' in corruption. For example many vendors break the rule against vending on streets. They do not conspire to do it but the act is still a corruption because the disregard for the regulation itself by so many people together decays or corrupts the values upheld by the society. Sep 23, 2020 at 9:35
  • I'm sorry I could not get a better "quote" that matches your point. I think your point is excellent. Please try to improve upon my edit, if you dislike it for whatever reason. "Co" and "com" are close, but not 100%-equal. Thank you. Sep 23, 2020 at 11:10
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    @fogofmylife: street vendors do not have to conspire with each other to break the rule, but they clearly have to conspire with someone: their customers, if no one else. people commit corruption to achieve some end or value, but that end or value inevitably comes from others. Sep 23, 2020 at 15:07

To start, the purpose of "morals" should be clear. I assume that your question targets social corruption.

Rational systems of regulation (as natural systems of regulation do) help improving the survival probabilities of the group. That means that law, religion, ethics or morals are systems of rules which help survival, which seems evident. The obvious rule it is forbidden to kill another person is present probably in all systems of regulation, and those societies which don't include it will just perish. Rules like "be kind" seem not to target survival, but they do: improving the quality of interactions within the group will always improve the probabilities of survival, even by infinitesimal amounts.

Corruption, on the other hand, is not only focused in morals, but in most regulation systems, as a negative behavior, precisely because it contributes to decrease the probability.

But social corruption is not something that humans have invented. Mice large groups in reduced spaces acquire socially corrupt behaviors, which tend to reduce the population. Such behavior can be interpreted as a mechanism of survival.

In humans, social corruption would have the same goal. The result is nevertheless difficult to perceive, given our huge capabilities of survival. Personally, I think that such behavior will be clearly visible in the future, because we're starting to overpopulate the planet, and natural mechanisms (like those acting on mice) will help destroy population overgrowths. Venezuela or North Corea are clear examples of weak social groups which result from social corruption (no, those governments are not socialists, they are just socially corrupt).

In conclusion, the fact that corruption is considered negative in most systems of rules is just circumstantial, corruption helps survival. But corruption will probably never be considered moral or legal (that's the answer): the moment a system of rules regulates the behavior of a society, it should regulate any behavior risking survival, instead of promoting corruption.

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