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The Serpent’s Lair – Characteristics, Causes and Contexts of Corruption

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Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP,volume 15)


This chapter will provide a general philosophical account of corruption that applies to all forms of corruption, such as political, financial, police corruption, sports corruption, among others, and media corruption, which is the main topic of this book. It demonstrates why such practices are not only unethical but also corrupt. Such practices are of greater concern as they have the tendency not only to cause harm to individual persons or groups of persons but also cause harm to the institutions that underlie the democratic system itself. Insofar as this is the case, the harm that is caused by corruption and especially media corruption, affects every citizen. However, like the proverbial fifth-phalanx, media corruption is not always apparent and when apparent is not understood as media corruption as other forms of corruption are. As in Plato’s Myth of Gyges (Republic Book II) that will be examined in this chapter, the media, merely “appears just, when it is not”. Having determined the essential characterizing features of corruption as well as its necessary and sufficient conditions, the chapter will also provide a taxonomy of corruption of its various manifestations.

To waste his whole Creation, or possess

All as our own, and drive as we were driven

The puny habitants, or if not drive,

Seduce them to our party….

From John Milton, Paradise Lost Book II.

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  1. 1.

    For a detailed account of the Myth of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, see Appendix 1.

  2. 2.

    HIH Insurance was one of Australia’s largest insurance companies that was placed into liquidation in 2001. Its collapse considered to be one of the largest in Australia’s corporate history, was the result of corruption and fraud resulting in the imprisonment of a number of its members of management.

  3. 3.

    By “instrumentally desirable” understand the kind of practical prudence attributable to an instrumentally rational agent intending to act corruptly in an environment in which corruption is either illegal or if not illegal at least generally considered unethical. In such an environment it would be a desirable requirement of instrumental rational agency that the agent intending to engage in corrupt activity should take the required measures to keep the agency of his corrupt actions invisible or concealed. For not to do so, could prove self-defeating and therefore instrumentally irrational. We will consider certain exceptions to the instrumental desirability of the invisibility condition, below. An underlined presupposition to our argument is that the agent addressed throughout this chapter is an instrumentally rational agent.

  4. 4.

    The self-regarding gain need not be merely a self-directed gain accruing to the corrupt agent himself. Thus, the perceived gain from the corrupt activities of some of President Nixon’s associates in the Watergate affair was self-regarding, in the sense that it benefited the Republican Party of which they were members, but not self-directed in the sense that it benefited or was intended to benefit those associates personally.

  5. 5.

    Unless of course the corrupt agent is seeking exposure. By hoping that his corrupt deeds would be discovered and exposed, the agent might perhaps be seeking atonement for his corrupt deeds through exposure and subsequent punishment. Under these psychological circumstances, the instrumentally rational agent’s non-avoidance of concealment for his corrupt agency is not self-defeating as its goal is maximized through the means used to bring about his eventual exposure and punishment.

  6. 6.

    This objection was raised by at least two respondents at a reading of an earlier paper on which this chapter is based. In response to my challenge to provide specific instances of open and transparent corruption that flouted the condition of concealment or invisibility, those respondents were unable to do so. My charitable interpretation of their objection is that it is conceivable even if actual cases cannot be readily cited that under certain relevant circumstances, open and transparent corruption is possible and thus invisibility is not a characterizing feature of a corrupt agency; at least not always. It will be recalled that the characterizing features of corruption discussed above, including that of invisibility, relate not to the actions but to the agency of the corrupt individual, group or institution. The actions of the corrupt agent and their consequences can and often, if not always, will be visible and transparent. By contrast, assuming instrumental rationality in the decision-making process, the agency of the corrupt individual, group or institution, cannot be visible or transparent; with perhaps the one exception where the corrupt agent deems himself to be so powerful that he considers himself to be immune from any punitive repercussions from others. Under those circumstances, the corrupt agent may still be deemed to be instrumentally rational. For insofar as his total power over others provides him with total immunity from any punitive repercussions, there is no pressing instrumental reason for that agent to conceal or render invisible the corruption of his agency. I will henceforth refer to this possibility as the condition of “omnipotence”. One could say that power is inversely proportional to invisibility. That is, the more powerful the corrupt agent is, the less of an instrumental reason he has for rendering his corrupt agency invisible. By contrast, the least powerful the corrupt agent is, the more of an instrumental reason he has in concealing the corruption of his agency. However, even under conditions approaching “omnipotence”, one could argue that invisibility would overall be an instrumentally rational choice, as someone so powerful may stand to lose a lot, if he was found to be corrupt and as a result lost his power that sustained his corrupt conduct.

  7. 7.

    It is an open question, one that we do not have the space to pursue here, whether a reckless agent who takes no precautions in concealing the agency of his corrupt actions under circumstances where he is able to do so and in the absence of omnipotence, can still be considered instrumentally rational. Because of the self-defeating aspect of reckless behavior, especially where the consequences can be punitively costly. I will treat reckless disregard of taking proper precautions for concealing the agency of one’s corrupt actions as an instance of instrumental irrationality.

  8. 8.

    See the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

  9. 9.

    Mentor’s hypothesis seems to have been confirmed by the cross–national 1990–1993 World Values Survey which indicated a close correlation between achievement motivation and corruption in the less affluent countries. This may help explain, at least in the past, how organized corruption by criminal organizations like the Mafia exhibited a close relationship between achievement motivation and corruption. See Seymour M. Lipset and Gabriel S. Lenz, “Corruption, Culture, and Markets” in Culture Matters, 2000, pp. 116–118.

  10. 10.

    I borrow these terms from John Searle, see John Searle (1969), and Arthurs Isak Applbaum (1999).

  11. 11.

    Plato of course doesn’t specifically use the term “corruption” but “injustice”. However, to the extent that corruption is a form of injustice we can by analogy apply Plato’s notion of parallelism between individual and institutional justice to the phenomenon of corruption.

  12. 12.

    Plato Republic, Book 2, p. 361.

  13. 13.

    See also Alan Gewirth (1991) Can Any Final Ends be Rational. Ethics 102 (October 1991): 66–95.

  14. 14.

    For more detail about Surveillance Capitalism see Shoshana Zuboff (2019), The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books Ltd.


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Spence, E.H. (2021). The Serpent’s Lair – Characteristics, Causes and Contexts of Corruption. In: Media Corruption in the Age of Information. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 15. Springer, Cham.

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