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
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 7:56
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    Welcome to Stack Exchange. I hope you have a good time here, and you find what you are looking for. :) ^^ :D 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻 Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 9:35
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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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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). Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 10:50

5 Answers 5


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. Commented 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. Commented 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. Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 15:07
  • Interestingly in German the word for "collapse" would be "zusammenbrechen" which consists of the words "zusammen" (together) and "brechen" (to break). So are you sure that the etymology hints at a conspiracy to "gather in order to break" and not at the "gathering in a pile due to the fact of being broken"?
    – haxor789
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 10:42

There are levels of morality. Some people can be more moral than others.

A person that give away some of his excess stuff - things he have thats more than his need and may fulfill needs of others - to the needy is more moral than one who give none of his excess stuff. A person that give away all of his excess stuff is more moral than the first.

A traffic constable in a third world country who sometimes stop bike riders, threaten them with challan to take petty amounts from them, just enough to feed his family, because due to corruption at higher levels he is not given enough salary to cover living costs, is not immoral at all. He is providing a service and taking whats his right to live.

However a more moral person wouldnt take that job. He would become a manual labourer such as a brick layer, porter or waiter if he has to, to keep his hands clean. He will live a harder life than the traffic constable. If enough people follow his path higher ups have to increase traffic constables salary or nobody will be able to reach workplace because of traffic jams.

The moral "dilemmas" that you talk about exist because some people somewhere are morally weak. Not morally corrupt, mind you. They compromised gold for silver. Cannot blame them. Not everybody become a martyr. But if nobody do then everybody suffer.

Not all obligations are personal. Some are group-wise. Somebody in class has to fetch the teacher his glass of water otherwise nobody will get a lesson from the teacher that day. Some people have to sacrifice sleep to guard borders of country so that everybody else can sleep peacefully.

Always strive to be that person.


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.


First of all corruption comes most often in two definitions one is the illegal action of a corrupted, that is the abuse of trust and power for one's own benefit and the other is the act of corrupting, that is the encouragement/quid pro quo/threat that makes someone act like that.

The difference is that the first is an individual act of illegal conduct within a system of rules and regulations, where the severity depends on the level of trust and power. While the second is an attempt to subvert the system itself (locally or on a larger scale).

So to an extend it's the difference between not abiding by the rules and outright destroying/removing or altering them (in practice and by illegal means).

Unless you define morality as something ethereal that is just there and everyone is aware of it. You could also just define morality by what works best. Which prompts questions of what "works" means and what "best" is. Now for the individual these questions are easy to answer as they can define for themselves what works (is better or worse in comparison or good or bad in the absolute) and what doesn't, simply by what "feels good to them" and "best" is more or less whatever they end up doing, because if it wouldn't be "best" they could just do something else and if they can't than it's "the best that they could do".

However individual survival is difficult. A farmer would have died before the harvest and gatherer would need long to find enough to eat and a hunter would be based on luck not to mention all would be vulnerable at night.

So forming a society, that is a group of individual is generally beneficial to survival as it enables people to share the workload, specialize and use synergy effects so that it's a net positive for all members (higher production of the whole then the sum of it's parts).

However it comes at a price and that is that morally gets more complicated. So in addition to your personal compass of what's good and bad for you as an individual you now also have to figure in what's good and bad for other people and your group, because these other people and your group contributes to your own well being. So in a sense it's now a part of "you" and you are a part of "it".

And that relation between the individual and the group can be closer or more distant. Like you could treat each others problems as as important as your own and as almost a part of you and be quite literally heartbroken if a social bond breaks apart or you could have a loser bond where you agree upon some general rules and codes of conduct with each other that you consider mutually beneficial but remain for yourself most of the time.

If there's an antagonism or a sort of ignorance of the group towards a particular individual or individuals in general, then you'd again approach the perspective of the individual that is not part of a group and for whom the group is not important in their consideration of morality. Though you could argue that this isn't really corruption in that regard, because your not abusing a position of trust or power, you're dropping out of society. "You're not a traitor if you're not part of the team" so to say. And it's quite questionable whether you owe something to an abuser.

I mean there are definitions of morality that give it an objective an absolute character or that tie it to an authority so that your own moral compass is insignificant and you should act upon their moral value, even if it is harmful to you but if you wouldn't subscribe to that you could make a good case in such situations that it's this society that is acting immoral not the individual. They do something that doesn't work and demand something that is impossible to do (within the limits of what the individual is capable and willing to do).

The more tricky domain is the in between. That is you're still part of society you're still receiving more from it than you would on your own, but you still apply the lone wolf perspective on morality. That would be gambling in terms of taking more than your fair share, fingers crossed that it won't effect society enough for it to collapse and thus destroy the benefits that you receive from it. Something like stealing bricks from the wall of an important structure to build your own house in the hopes that it is still able to function without them.

Though due to the nature of the action being able to cause damage to the structural integrity of society, it's very likely that such actions of corruption are labeled as immoral. There would likely be rules against that and it would fall towards society to make sure these rules are followed. Whether that is by explaining their purpose and finding agreement, by solving the "necessity" to break the rules or by enforcing them against the will of the individual (thus entering the domain from before where quitting might be beneficial).

So if you accept society as-is and want it's continued existence but violate it's rules for your own gain, then that would make you an antagonist of the other people and they'd have a claim to either demand payback or kick you out.

And whether these violations of the rules do more harm or more good kinda depends on the scale and scope of it. Like in terms of a train ride without ticket you could argue that the train would ride anyway with or without you and that you wouldn't do damage but you'd receive a massive benefit from taking that train so that it's a net positive for society. While you could also argue that without covering the costs for the train ride, there will be no train ride so you might have saved a couple of bucks now but you've destroyed public infrastructure worth tremendously more than that.

So this calculation is often not as easy and might exceed the scope of information available to the individual, not to mention that even if the first got the calculation right, setting a precedent might tip the scale more than he could have anticipated when being the first to do something.

So if it really hit's the breaking point where society is a net negative for the individual you could be able to make that case, but beyond that you'd probably still be aware that this wouldn't work if everyone did that and thus would not be a working solution for society and playing with fire.


Corruption, in a simple (simplistic?) sense of taking bribes (type specimen), has two roots:

  1. Necessititas (need): one doesn't make enough to live a decent life

  2. Cupiditas (greed): one makes enough to live a decent life, but one wants more and more and more ...

One is not immoral and one is.

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