Reformed Articles

The ethics of bribery

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This is a follow-up to this post:


1. Bribery is morally complex. One complicating factor is that bribery involves two potential parties: the briber and the bribee. And what may be unethical for the bribee may not be unethical for the briber. 

Regarding the bribee, I think demanding, soliciting, or accepting a bribe is probably always wrong. I say “probably” because ethicists can be quite ingenious about concocting esoteric hypothetical exceptions. But offhand I can’t think of any realistic exceptions. But may be there are counterexamples I’m overlooking.

2. Regarding the briber, I think offering or giving a bribe is prima facie wrong, but there are situations where that’s overridden. There are corrupt societies in which bribery is the only way to obtain necessary goods and services. Innocent people, through no fault of their own, find themselves at the mercy of an unjust system. And this is very common throughout human history. 

3. Here’s another complicating factor: we usually think of bribery in terms of unfair favors or preferential treatment. Take the recent scandal involving college applicants who feign a disability. That cheats applicants with genuine disabilities. 

But in a deranged society, offering a bribe might be necessary to obtain something to which one is normally entitled. That’s something which ought to be available without a bribe. People are shirking their duties when the refuse to provide necessary goods and services unless they receive a bribe. 

Take the hypothetical of the death camp where you offer the commandant a bribe to spare your innocent son from execution. Normally, not murdering innocent people isn’t a request for preferential treatment or special favors. It’s only in a morally twisted situation that preventing murder is a request for preferential treatment.