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The Moral Incompetence of Anti-corruption Experts

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This paper studies the lessons of principled anti-corruption experts who dared to fulfill their duty of justice in highly corrupt societies, through the true story of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister of Nigeria. My thesis is that when principled anti-corruption experts are epistemic trespassers (when they fail to identify the limits of their skills), they show moral incompetence (the tendency of principled agents to bungle moral situations). Okonjo-Iweala shows moral incompetence in two ways: she misread the opposition to her strategies and misled other honest reformers. Both actions bungled her efforts to eradicate corruption inasmuch as they hindered the possibility of finding successful anti-corruption policies. Okonjo-Iweala’s moral incompetence is, I argue, the result of her epistemic trespassing that led her to act like an expert in an environment where she was not. I conclude that, in highly corrupt societies, principled anti-corruption experts should embrace moral humility, stop thinking that they are experts, and act more like students, asking questions and not rushing to think that they understand the answers.

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  1. The existence of a duty of justice is controversial. Here, I will assume that there is indeed a natural duty of justice. For a view in favor, in addition to Rawls (1999), see Waldron (1993). For a rejection of the duty, see Klosko (1994). There are also mixed views. Simmons rejects the first clause of the duty of justice, but he has ‘no quarrel with the second clause of Rawls’s duty of justice, which specifies that we are to assist to some extent in the establishments of just institutions’ (Simmons 1979, p. 147). In this paper, I only deal with this second clause. For a nuanced view about the extent of this duty, see Valentini (2017).

  2. There are manifold definitions of corruption, for examples see Miller et al. (2005), Chapter 1, Ceva and Ferretti (2017). However, for the purposes of this paper, I shall use Joseph Nye’s classical definition of political corruption—a corrupt action is a ‘behaviour which deviates from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (personal, close family, private clique) pecuniary or status gains’ (Nye 1967, p. 419)—since it is the definition that international organizations normally use. Hereafter, I will use the terms political corruption and corruption interchangeably.

  3. Following Koppl, I assume that an ‘expert is anyone with expertise’ (Koppl 2018, p. 37). The advantage of this vague definition is that it ‘leaves it an open question whether experts are reliable or unreliable and might be less likely to suggest that nonexperts are powerless’ (Koppl 2018, p. 38). Moreover, Ballantyne holds that ‘expertise[…] is an intellectual competence that is consistent with fallibility’ (Ballantyne 2019, p. 371).

  4. Okonjo-Iweala can be considered an expert (someone with expertise) in anti-corruption policies. Here are three reasons for this claim. First, she has occupied high positions at the World Bank (where she was Managing Director), where one of the main goals is to fight corruption. Second, she has been the Finance Minister of Nigeria twice (from 2003–2006 to 2011–2015) and advanced an anti-corruption agenda. And third, she has written at least two books about fighting corruption. See Okonjo-Iweala (2012; 2018). Furthermore, some passages suggest that she considers herself to be an expert in anti-corruption reforms. See Okonjo-Iweala (2012, p 12; 2018, Chapter 8).

  5. See Morton (2006, pp. 122–123). For more examples, see Morton (2006, pp. 119–123).

  6. For more on moral saints, see Wolf (2015, p. 12).

  7. For some reflections about self-sacrifice and duties to oneself, see Tadros (2011, pp. 31–34).

  8. In another article, talking about epistemic meta-virtues, Morton says: ‘The virtues that I have been describing are virtues of the efficient management of one’s cognitive limitations’ (Morton 2004, p. 499). Hence, when talking about meta-virtues in the moral realm, I surmise that he is talking about one’s ability to manage one’s moral limitations.

  9. Nevertheless, one can think of cases in which moral incompetence implies blameworthiness. If a simplistic Kantian tells a murderer the place where the victim is hidden out of a deontic commitment to the truth, the Kantian seems intuitively blameworthy. I suspect that the severity of the outcome of the morally incompetent action is key to determine whether the agent is blameworthy or not. The relation between moral incompetence and blameworthiness is, in fact, more convoluted than Morton suggests. Yet, for the purpose of this paper, I follow Morton (2006, pp. 132–133) and assume that moral incompetence does not imply prima facie blameworthiness.

  10. Are morally incompetent public officials legally accountable? When principled public officials bungle a moral situation, they might put people’s lives at risk. For instance, a top health official who approves a drug without due care because he wants to save sick patients quickly might be subject to legal charges. A proper answer to this question requires further investigation. Nonetheless, I will not deal with this question here. I will simply assume—because I believe—that morally incompetent anti-corruption experts are not legally accountable. However, this might not be the case of other morally incompetent public officials.

  11. See Okonjo-Iweala (20122018).

  12. Okonjo-Iweala (2018, p. 122). For the history of the growing importance of corruption for international organizations, see Rothstein and Varraich (2017, Chapter 1).

  13. See United Nations (2004). The World Bank has also promoted research on corruption, see World Bank (1997).

  14. Okonjo-Iweala affirms, ‘if Nigeria was to fight corruption successfully, I needed not just to arrest and prosecute people […] but also to build the institutions, processes, and systems that enhance transparency and make corrupt practices more difficult in the same place’ (Okonjo-Iweala 2018, p. 22). Furthermore, while Okonjo-Iweala explicitly recognizes the heavy influence of Dorintinsky and Pradhan (2007), inasmuch they recommend strong management control and oversight of public expenditures, their anti-corruption measures are part of the Anti-Corruption Toolkit (see Okonjo-Iweala 2018, p. x). As ‘The Failure’ section will show, these types of anti-corruption measures share the same root: they understand corruption as a principal-agent problem. For simplicity, I will use the expression ‘the Anti-Corruption Toolkit’ (or just ‘Toolkit’) to refer to Okonjo-Iweala’s policies.

  15. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, p. 55).

  16. For a philosophical defense of whistleblowing, see Ceva and Bocchiola (2019).

  17. For examples of the opposition inside the government, see Okonjo-Iweala (2018, Chapter 4); for examples of the media attacks, see Okonjo-Iweala (2018, pp. 19–21, 34); for her understanding of the protests, see Okonjo-Iweala (2018, pp. 32–35); for the story of threats to her life, see  Okonjo-Iweala (2018, pp. 9–11).

  18. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, p. xi). For the importance of trendsetters for social change, see Bicchieri (2017, Chapter 5).

  19. Characteristics of policy failure are falling short of the objectives and the damage to the reputation and legitimacy of the government. For more on policy failure, see McConnell (2010). Moreover, for the main criticism of the Anti-Corruption Toolkit see Persson et. al. (2013), Mungiu-Pippidi (2015, pp. 50–56. 207–211).

  20. It is certainly an Index about perception, not about factual corruption. However, because it is really difficult to have clear knowledge of corruption levels, perception is usually accepted as the standard measurement of corruption. For the history of Nigeria in the Index see

  21. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, pp. 56–58).

  22. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, Epilogue).

  23. The anti-corruption paradox seems a frequent outcome of the fight against corruption, when reformers deploy the Toolkit policies. This explains the silence of anti-corruption reformers that Okonjo-Iweala refers to. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, p. 121). For more about the anti-corruption paradox, see Rose-Ackerman and Palifka (2016, p. 428).

  24. For criticisms against the Toolkit and against understanding corruption as a principal-agent problem, see Persson et. al. (2013), Mungiu-Pippidi (2015, Chapter 4), Hoffmann and Patel (2017), Rothstein and Varraich (2017, pp. 19, 76). For a summary, see Thompson (2018, pp. 508–510).

  25. For the most famous defense of conceiving political corruption as a principal-agent problem, see Klitgaard (1988). For the influence of Klitgaard on the World Bank’s view on corruption, see Campos and Bhargava (2007, p. 4).

  26. See Mungiu-Pippidi (2015, pp. 14–17). She builds on North, Wallis, and Weingast’s distinction between limited access and open access orders. In ‘the limited access order […], personal relationships, who one is and who one knows form the basis for social organization […]. In the open access orders […], personal relations still matter, but impersonal categories of individuals, often called citizens, interact over wide areas of social behavior […]’ (North et al. 2009, p. 2).

  27. See Mungiu-Pippidi (2015, p. 15).

  28. This paper exclusively deals with the failure to reduce the levels of corruption in highly corrupt environments. However, for other political interventions of experts that tend to fail in developing countries, see Easterly (2006; 2013), Coyne (2013). For a successful example of humanitarian interventions in context B societies, consider the case of the medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, who has contributed to improving healthcare of people in poor societies.

  29. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, p. xv).

  30. For scholars who study the normalization of corruption, see Olivier de Sardan (1999), Ashford and Anand (2003), Choi and Storr (2019). For the economic advantages of some cases of corruption, see Huntington (1968, pp. 59–71), Olivier de Sardan (1999, pp. 36–44), and Munger (2018, pp. 164–170).

  31. See footnote 24.

  32. Morton talks about the blinding effect of moral conviction when explaining the moral incompetence of President Woodrow Wilson, who failed to convince the U.S. Congress to join the League of Nations. See Morton (2006, pp. 129–131).

  33. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, Chapter 3).

  34. See Okonjo-Iweala (2018, pp. 28–35).

  35. The business theorist Chris Argyris observes that experts tend to misidentify negative feedback to their endeavors: ‘Because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So, whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most’ (1991, p. 4; my emphasis).

  36. In ‘The True Lesson’ section, I argue that this difference is the result of different learning environments.

  37. See Ballantyne (2019, p. 367).

  38. For Pseudosupererogation, see ‘The Lessons of Unsung Heroes’ section; and Morton (2006, pp. 122–123).

  39. This is a particular kind of epistemic trespassing that some have called ‘overzealous transfer’: the skills of one context are used in a context where they are inappropriate. See Schwartz et al. (2012), Ballantyne (2019, p. 385). For simplicity, I will simply use the term epistemic trespassing to talk about this phenomenon.

  40. For scholars who defend this thesis, see Hogarth (2001), Kahneman and Klein (2009).

  41. These and more examples are to be found in Hogarth (2001, p. 218).

  42. Some philosophers hold that we learn our moral skills like we learn any other skill. For defenders of this view, see Annas (2011, 3), McGrath (2019, Chapter 3). As a matter of fact, the importance of the context for moral learning is a classical Aristotelian topic.

  43. For the importance of identifying the differences in contexts for transferring knowledge, see Barnett and Ceci (2002).

  44. For anthropological studies about the norms of corruption in African countries, see Olivier de Sardan (1999). For more about the social norm of corruption, see the interview in Persson et al. (2013, pp. 460–463). For studies about cultural corruption, see Rose-Ackerman and Palifka (2016, Chapter 7).

  45. See ‘Misreading’ section.

  46. On the importance of role models for moral learning, see Hursthouse (2000), Annas (2011). In the same line of thought, McGrath (2019) talks about moral experts.


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I thank Sune Lægaard and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and challenging criticisms that significantly improved this paper. I also thank the audiences at the IHS graduate research workshop (in particular Alex Braud, Jeff Carroll, and Brian Kogelmann) and the APA Eastern division meeting (especially Cayla Clinkenbeard, Julia Markovits, and Bryan Pilkington). Finally, I am deeply grateful to Lauren Beall, Avital Hazony Levi, Alexandra Oprea, Greg Robson, Dan Russell, Alexander Schaefer, and David Schmidtz for their invaluable feedback and help with this project.

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Correspondence to Mario I. Juarez-Garcia.

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Juarez-Garcia, M.I. The Moral Incompetence of Anti-corruption Experts. Res Publica 27, 537–557 (2021).

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