CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1On March 19, 1989, the political party Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), led by Jacques Chirac since its formation in 1976, and the federation of center-right and non-Gaullist right-wing parties, the Union pour la démocratie française (UDF), won the municipal elections in all twenty arrondissements in the city of Paris. This “grand slam,” a feat that was not repeated in the 1995 elections, was made possible by including non-residents on the electoral rolls of the capital’s third arrondissement. The motive of this fraud was to ensure the RPR-UDF’s victory in that arrondissement in the 1989 and 1995 municipal elections. This illegal hijacking of the electoral system is just one example of the political corruption scandals that have impaired the optimal functioning of French democracy, threatening to undermine citizens’ trust in it and giving rise to moral condemnation along with criminal, economic, and political sanctions.

2But while it is certainly not illegitimate to condemn from a moral perspective such transgressions of the legal frameworks and public regulations that govern the proper functioning of our political institutions, is such condemnation able to foster a pertinent normative evaluation of the ill of political corruption? In particular, by focusing on the personal vices of our political representatives, is there not a danger of overlooking what is really at stake in corruption?

3Corruption commonly refers to a certain type of abuse of delegated power, committed with a view to satisfying private ends and generally at the expense of the common good. [1] The various conceptions of political corruption presented in the contemporary literature take different views on the following questions [2]: Is it necessary for the practice in question to be illegal for it to constitute an abuse? Are the intended purposes of those guilty of corruption always surreptitious? Who are the actors that, due to their position, may be corrupted? Are they solely our elected politicians, or can they be anyone in public office? What is the nature of the private benefits sought by these actors? Must they be material, or do they also include the pursuit of honors, career progression, increased political influence, or the surreptitious promotion of a minority-held political position in the public debate?

4Beyond these disagreements, which arise from the various possible conceptions of political corruption, the general definition of corruption is not in dispute. Thus, according to Mark E. Warren:


Virtually all meanings of political corruption, ancient and modern alike, share the following propositions:
  1. An individual or group of individuals is entrusted with collective decisions or actions.
  2. Common norms exist regulating the ways individuals and groups use their power over collective decisions or actions.
  3. An individual or group breaks with the norms.
  4. Breaking with the norms normally benefits the individual or group and harms the collectivity. [3]

6Whatever may be the norms defining the methods of exercising the power associated with the offices that are entrusted, on behalf of the collectivity, to these individuals or groups, the latter break a political contract when they take advantage of their position to violate these norms in order to obtain private benefits for themselves at the expense of those who have conferred this power upon them. Does this mean therefore that it is not legitimate for political corruption to hurt our moral sensibility, or that the conceptual tools of moral theory are of no use to us in considering the ill of political corruption?

7Contrary to what is broadly presupposed in the contemporary literature, there is no reason to see moral theory as necessarily confined to generating an unproductive evaluation of the personal vices of the few “black sheep” who abuse their power to indulge a private interest. Instead of a theory of the vices and virtues of people in power, it is a contractualist theory of what we owe to each other that is best able to account for the legitimacy of some of our intuitions about what is wrong with political corruption. Based on the analysis, put forward by T. M. Scanlon in chapter 7 of What We Owe to Each Other, of the duties and obligations that bind us to those we have led to form expectations about what we intend to do, I will show that political corruption is morally unjustifiable for the same reasons that manipulation and promise-breaking are. [4] In my analysis, an individual is guilty of corruption when, having generated and continued to foster, within the political community on whose behalf s/he has been placed in a position of power, expectations about the way in which s/he intends to perform his or her role, s/he surreptitiously violates these expectations for the sake of a private purpose. By showing contempt for the expectations s/he has himself created, s/he treats the members of this community in an unjustifiable manner.

8Instead of focusing on the processes of political corruption that affect non-democratic regimes and societies in transition, the following analysis will look at the ethical issues of political corruption when it occurs within a democracy and thereby disrupts its proper functioning. This specific focus on the democratic regime is justified by a common interpretation of corruption as a pathology of the public order [5]: political corruption consists in an elected representative or a civil servant promoting an agenda the promotion of which cannot be publicly justified as being in line with his or her mandate, and thus equates to rejecting the imperative, proper to all liberal democracies, that “those who act on public mandate must be capable of offering a public justification for their actions.” [6] In other words, corruption jeopardizes “the very link that defines democracy,” namely that which connects collective decision-making to the exercise of political power: an abuse of the latter motivated by the desire to indulge a private interest cannot be publicly justified in the name of the collective interest. [7] The conceptual connection between corruption and democracy lies therefore in the fact that corruption always involves “a form of duplicitous and harmful exclusion of those who have a claim to inclusion in collective decisions and actions.” [8]

9The rest of this article will be organized as follows. I will first set out the reasons why the two main contemporary approaches, although they differ in their conceptions of corruption and their diagnosis of why it poses a problem, share a common distrust of a moral reading of the issue of political corruption. I will then discuss in turn the contributions made by each of these two approaches: the institutional approach and the relational approach. I will first show that the institutional approach cannot be considered exhaustive and that, while it is certainly able to adequately account for some of our judgments and intuitions about corruption, it must be supplemented with additional analyses in order to avoid neglecting the intuitions that it does not cover. I will then show that the second approach, which describes political corruption as a “relational injustice,” [9] and thus promises to identify the foundation on which the intuitions that the institutional approach does not consider are based, runs the risk of presupposing what it aims to establish. I will then present the theoretical framework of moral contractualism within which I will finally attempt to overcome these difficulties, by specifying the kind of contract that is broken by corrupt public officials: the kind of moral contract we make with other people when we lead them to form expectations about the behaviors we intend to adopt. If my argumentation is valid, it will succeed in establishing that, in order to produce an analysis that supplements the institutional approach—motivated by a concern for successfully taking into account the intuition that political corruption, beyond the issue of the breakdown of our institutions, also consists in the unjust treatment of citizens, as argued by proponents of the relational approach—, it is relevant to make use of the conceptual tools of contractualist moral theory.

Corruption: A question of private morality?

10As noted above, when a politician or other individual in public office [10] circumvents the official rules governing the exercise of his or her duties in order to obtain private benefits for him/herself, s/he breaks the political contract that s/he has committed to observing. While such abuses of power clearly demonstrate the morally corrupt character of such individuals, we would be unable to appreciate the full depth of the phenomenon, or the magnitude of the specifically political ill that it generates, if we were to limit ourselves to condemning their private vices. In order to avoid this pitfall, the two main contemporary approaches have dispensed with the analysis of political corruption in moral terms.

11For proponents of the institutional approach, [11] corruption is characterized by the fact that it systematically renders a political institution incapable of fulfilling the functions for which it was designed, thus depriving it of public trust. In this view, political corruption equates to the corruption of a system or an institution, not to individual corruption, and focusing on this latter would ultimately divert our attention away from the establishment of tacit institutional norms whose corrupting effect prevents certain institutions from achieving their intended purposes. [12] Since they look at the institutional dimension of political corruption, it is easy for these theorists to avoid the dangers represented by a moral, or moralizing, reading of corruption, as this would necessarily focus on individual actions, which these theorists leave out of their scope of analysis. In their view, an institution can be virtuous, in the sense that it fulfills its functions in an adequate manner, even if the individuals that form it are corrupt, and as long as their actions do not systematically divert the institution from its primary duties, there is no need for excessive concern.

12While proponents of the relational approach also seek to move away from an analysis framed in terms of personal vices and virtues, they nonetheless insist on the fact that corrupt individual behaviors may, in the same way as institutional dysfunctions, constitute a political ill. Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti, for example, focus on cases of political corruption that cannot be reduced “either to a specific deficit of some individual virtue or to a general malfunctioning or degeneration of institutions.” [13] In their view, the action of a corrupt individual is a cause for concern in a political sense in that, on the one hand, it contravenes the rationale of publicity that undergirds liberal democracies and, on the other hand, it often consists in the negation of a right, such as that held, according to democratically established public norms, by the potential beneficiaries of the elected or unelected public office that has been abused.

13Despite their differences, contemporary analyses of political corruption thus agree on giving moral theory short shrift. As such, they avoid the pitfalls against which Jean-Fabien Spitz warns anyone who might want to foreground questions of personal behavior. In his view, when excessive interest is taken in the moral dimension of the issue:


The real problems are no longer discussed, politics is solely about the private vices of public figures rather than their qualities as statesmen, public life takes a displeasing moralizing turn, politics suffers from growing disaffection, and, last but not least, a dangerous slippery slope tends to result in government by judges replacing democratically elected governments. [14]

15But while for all of these reasons it is essential not to reduce political corruption to a question of private morality, this is not enough to immediately delegitimize all moral analysis of corruption. It should be noted, for example, that a definition of the virtues of a good governor, in light of which we might appreciate the violations committed by corrupt individuals, does not necessarily make politics “solely about the private vices of public figures rather than their qualities as statesmen.” In fact, it conceives of these virtues as qualities that anyone with a shred of public power must possess, as a statesman, in order to properly perform his or her role, while condemning the corresponding vices in the name of an ideal conception of this role rather than as private vices.

16That said, while such an approach is certainly able to define the dispositions that public officials must adopt as statesmen, and thus to resolve the problem posed by confining our question to the private sphere, the definition of these dispositions cannot explain why corruption is reprehensible. For we would then need to either immediately presuppose that corruption is an ill in order to deduce that a virtuous public official must be willing to turn his or her back on it, or otherwise to explain the ill of corruption by insisting on the fact that corrupt behavior is incompatible with the prospect of leading a good, happy, or fulfilling life. In the first case, the explanation of the ill of corruption is circular, while, in the second, it would appear wholly disconnected from our true concern, since it is not the salvation of the corrupt public official’s soul that matters to us, but the ideal functioning of our institutions and the respect for the rights and legitimate expectations of citizens. [15]

17Contemporary analyses of political corruption are therefore right not to incorporate virtue ethics into their normative evaluations of this phenomenon. However, they do not sideline this moral theory for the right reasons, as they do not only dismiss the theories that form part of the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, but all moral theory. This stems from the fact that contemporary approaches to political corruption tend to identify moral theory in general as no more nor less than an evaluation of the vices and virtues of individuals, thus judging it to have little relevance for telling us what is wrong with corruption, preferring to focus their analyses either on the breakdown of our political institutions or the violation of our civic rights. In addition to sweeping aside moral theories that might potentially be able to account for some of our intuitions about what is wrong with political corruption, this also has the effect of producing an artificial and questionable separation between moral theory and political theory, with the former supposedly focused on individual vices and virtues, and the latter conversely centering on specifically political elements such as our institutions or subjective rights.

18Rejecting this separation, I will show that contractualist moral theory can provide an essential supplement to the relational approach that seeks to describe political corruption as an unjustifiable breach of what public officials owe to us. But it is important to first understand how the institutional and relational approaches respectively conceive of the ill of political corruption.

Institutional corruption and individual corruption

19Let us begin with the institutional approach. This approach has several aspects in common with the analyses of Montesquieu who, in The Spirit of the Laws, [16] breaks with the classical conception of corruption as a disease that undermines the moral horizon of the collectivity. While Aristotle’s “healthy city” [17] was devoted to educating men to become good and just, with the purpose of politics being to achieve human excellence, “Montesquieu was no longer working within a teleological framework in which virtue is the natural purpose of man, the destination most in accordance with his essence.” [18] Turning his back on the classical tradition, which conceived of corruption through the lens of an alliance of good laws and good mores, Montesquieu defined it as something that happens over time in politics, with his analyses free of moral assessment. In his view, corruption is the gradual decline of the principles of a regime. [19] These principles are defined by the dominant passions of the governors and the governed, and constitute the subjective counterpart of the institutional nature of regimes: as Céline Spector describes it, “when the nature of a government changes, its principle is altered, and, inversely, once the principle is corrupted, the constitution finds itself distorted.” [20]

20The corruption of democracy corresponds to the loss of civic virtue, which includes love for one’s country, frugality, and equality. This loss can occur due to a lack of equality, such as when the taste for luxury replaces the love of frugality and drives us to focus on our own interest to the point of becoming enemies of the laws that constrain us. [21] But the corruption of democracy is also sometimes linked to an excess of equality or to the rejection of all subordination: when “each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him” [22] the spirit of equality is lost, which consists not of giving each individual the leisure or freedom to command others but requires us to “obey or command our equals.” [23] When the hierarchy is opposed to the point of contesting the authority of the magistrate, senator, judge, father, husband, or master, democracy is left behind.

21The institutional approach to political corruption shares Montesquieu’s focus on the decline of the norms that define our regimes or institutions rather than on the actions of the individuals whose will might be corrupted. Instead of deploring the corruption of mores or individual vices, both insist on the dangers represented by a regime or institutions whose primary principles or functions have withered away. But while corruption in democracy is condemned by institutionalists as a political ill, Montesquieu does not claim that corruption is always harmful, exclaiming for example of the Gothic government that it was “surprising that the corruption of the government of a conquering nation should have given birth to the best species of constitution that could possibly be imagined by man!” [24] Contrary to the classical authors, who identified corruption with the decadence of regimes, for Montesquieu the corruption of a regime is only an ill when it turns it into despotism, an intrinsically corrupt regime. [25]

22Institutionalists, on the other hand, condemn corruption as a degradation of democracy, as an estrangement from an ideal: when our institutions do not work as they should, our democracy is threatened and some citizens enjoy undue advantages compared to others. Corruption is therefore reprehensible insofar as it deforms and renders impotent the primary institutions of the regime, whose role is to preserve certain values, such as impartiality between competing conceptions of good or political views, and an ideal of political equality. [26] If the legitimacy of the regime is due in part to its ability to defend these values, the corruption of its principal institutions results in a loss of trust in it, or even distrust toward it. Institutionalists thus adopt a consequentialist form of reasoning: they first identify the values that our institutions are tasked with serving and then condemn the mechanisms that render them unable to achieve the purpose for which they were designed.

23Their adherence to consequentialism explains why Dennis Thompson and Lawrence Lessig have turned their attention away from individual corruption to focus on institutional corruption. An institution can be fully functional even when the individuals that are part of it are corrupt: as long as their behavior does not diminish the integrity of the institution, the consequences are insignificant from a political point of view. Conversely, an institution can be systematically diverted from its primary functions even when its members are not corrupt.

24Let us take private financing of electoral campaigns as an example. [27] In many countries, private individuals with access to significant capital are legally authorized—up to a certain point—to finance electoral campaigns, and we know that politicians may secure regulations favorable to the economic prosperity of their private backers, thus giving themselves a clear advantage during elections and enabling their donors to exert greater than average political influence. It is not however clear that these practices are the result of corruption, since no public norm appears to be distorted or abused. For institutionalists, corruption can only be identified by focusing the analysis on the institution itself: by allowing these practices, which run counter to the values of impartiality and political equality, the institution of democratic elections is corrupted even if nobody is abusing his or her power. In other words, even when everyone is compliant with public regulations, these are sometimes such that the electoral institution is unable to fulfill its function, which is to enable the expression of the sovereignty of citizens in a way that ensures impartiality and political equality.

25The normative evaluation of political corruption proposed by institutionalists therefore consists in condemning institutional corruption as a political ill, and in taking into account individual corruption only when it has the effect of undermining the functioning of our institutions to the point of rendering them unable to defend the fundamental values of liberal democracy, thus weakening the legitimacy of the regime. It is entirely focused on consequences: as long as the effects of deviant individual behaviors on our institutions are benign, the question ceases to be political and is reduced to a question of private morality. Since all that matters from this perspective is the integrity of our institutions, it is entirely consistent not to incorporate moral theory. But, as we shall see, this approach leaves out a whole dimension of the issue of political corruption. It is therefore necessary to offer analyses that supplement those produced by the proponents of the institutional approach in order to account for our intuitions about what is wrong with corruption even when it does not prevent our institutions from adequately carrying out their functions.

Corruption: A relational injustice?

26The principal merit of the institutional approach is that it draws our attention to deviant behaviors whose frequency and diffuse nature are such that they produce, outside public regulations, tacit norms that facilitate exchanges of services between corrupt individuals: when these practices subvert official norms, the institution no longer fulfills its essential functions. While proponents of the relational analysis recognize the theoretical contribution of this approach, [28] they also criticize its limitations and point out that certain abuses of public power cause harm even if they do not result in the systematic corrosion of our institutions. Countering the institutional approach, Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti seek to identify cases of individual corruption that would be of concern in their capacity as “internal enemies” [29] of healthy institutions, simply due to the violation of democratically established rules:


It would be inaccurate to identify political corruption entirely with institutions governed by degraded rules or deviating from appropriate statutory standards. Significant and politically relevant instances of corruption do occur also within well-designed institutions and against the backdrop of appropriate rules. In these instances, political corruption consists in a specific kind of abuse of entrusted power on the part of public officials [... who] exercise the power associated with their roles in ways that contradict the rationale with which that power was entrusted to them. [30]

28Contrary to the stance taken by institutionalists, proponents of the relational approach thus argue that behaviors of this kind constitute a political ill even when they are infrequent, go unnoticed, and do not undermine trust in our democratic institutions. What kind of ill is this, then?

29The relational approach promises to identify the common source of the political ill of individual and institutional corruption. [31] According to Ceva and Ferretti, corruption occurs when a public official performs his or her role in a manner that contravenes the official regulations defining the purposes s/he is supposed to serve, and this breach of the political contract is problematic in itself, whether or not his or her actions undermine the integrity of our institutions. Corruption always promotes a surreptitious project in the sense that the motive behind it cannot be publicly defended as a reason for the action of an elected politician or civil servant in accordance with the office for which his or her power is supposed to be exercised [32]: the trademark of political corruption is thus, in this specific sense, an absence of publicity. [33]

30According to this analysis, this absence of publicity is indicative of a relational injustice. Corrupt public officials violate the democratically established rules that govern the exercise of their power and, as such, position themselves above what G. A. Cohen calls the “justificatory community” [34]: when certain citizens attempt to escape the requirement for public justification, they deliberately place themselves in a position of domination and deny other citizens their status as equal members of the political community. They thus damage political relations, ideally determined by the principle of equality that undergirds liberal democracy, within which the holders of a public mandate must be answerable to their actions before those on whose behalf they carry them out. [35] From Ceva’s deontological perspective, [36] political corruption is unjust in itself, regardless of its consequences for the functioning of our institutions, because it consists in a digression from the treatment to which citizens are entitled by virtue of their status as equal members of the political community, and furthermore as holders of subjective rights that are often violated by acts of corruption. It is precisely because it is important to be able to take into account such intuitions—which condemn corruption as a breach of what citizens are owed—that the institutional analysis, which limits itself to deploring the harmful effects of corruption on our institutions, must be supplemented. However, the relational analysis strives to replace it by identifying the common source of the ill of both institutional and individual corruption as a relational injustice.

31Regardless of the specific rights that are violated, the absence of publicity that characterizes corruption harms the political dignity of citizens [37]: respecting the dignity of another person as a member of the political community in his or her own right requires public officials to carry out their roles in a way that they can justify to that person, either by complying with democratically established institutional norms, or by seeking to openly contest some of these norms, as in the case of whistleblowers and civil disobedients whose illegal actions contribute to the public debate with the goal of reform. [38] A public official who, judging the official norms that define the methods of carrying out his or her role to be unjust—for example because they generate, in his or her opinion, an unjust distribution of rights and duties among citizens—, engages in open resistance against these norms is not attempting to escape the imperative of public justification. The circumvention of public institutional norms and the negation of individual rights that often accompanies it are therefore only unjustly corrupt, according to Ceva and Ferretti, when they serve a private interest and show contempt for the requirement of publicity.

32Does the relational analysis succeed in its attempt to pinpoint the common source of the political ill of individual and institutional corruption? To judge this, let us consider the question of the violation of subjective rights. When a corrupt public official violates the public norms that stipulate how and to what end the power associated with his or her role must be exercised, s/he denies the rights, according to these same norms, of the potential beneficiaries of his or her office. Let us take the example of the widespread misuse of the conscience clause that allows Italian physicians qualified to perform abortions to exempt themselves from carrying out these procedures. [39] Although the law gives them the right to refuse to perform an abortion on a patient, it requires physicians to direct such patients to another practitioner so that they can have an abortion, of which the cost is partly covered by the social security system. But, in some regions in Italy, many physicians have systematically refused to carry out these procedures without providing the parties concerned with the information required. This is sometimes motivated by a desire to please an openly pro-life hospital management, with the goal of career progression. Other physicians apparently seek to enrich themselves by growing their private practice by driving women to seek an abortion outside the public hospital sector. Finally, others seek to tilt the balance of political influence in favor of the pro-life position, which is a minority-held view in Italy. These behaviors cannot be justified publicly due to the surreptitious nature of the motives—careerist, pecuniary, or partisan—that lie behind them: such abuses of power allow these physicians to create tacit institutional norms that subvert the public regulations that govern the exercise of their roles.

33In this example, the right of women to have an abortion covered by the social security system is systematically denied: this is a case of institutional corruption. In Ceva and Ferretti’s view, corruption is also reprehensible when it does not have such damaging consequences at the institutional level. Take for example the case of a representative or senator employing an unskilled personal staffer who happens to be a friend or relative. If this is an isolated case and goes unnoticed, it is highly unlikely to damage the House of Representatives or the Senate to the point of reducing their ability to fulfill their primary functions, or to undermine our trust in them: an institutionalist would therefore see this as no cause for alarm. However, as this personal staffer was chosen for reasons of family ties or friendship, this contravenes the spirit in which the representative or senator who gave him preference is supposed to exercise the power associated with his mandate: our imagined corrupt representative or senator would therefore be unable to publicly invoke this rationale in order to justify his preference. [40]

34The relational approach would appear to have kept its promise to identify the common source of the political ill of individual and institutional corruption: corruption is a relational injustice, since it reflects contempt for the dignity of citizens and often violates the rights defined by the democratically established institutional norms that corrupt public officials circumvent. It should be noted however that even if legitimate decision-making procedures led to the definition of a given institutional norm, this does not guarantee that this norm will necessarily protect perfectly just rights. If a political community agrees, following adequate decision-making procedures, that the best middle- and high-school students should have the right to have their shoes shined by the worst-performing pupils, this would not make this right any more just. The violation of a right framed by democratic norms is not therefore systematically unjust to the holder of that right. That said, if a public official violates individual rights in order to serve a private interest rather than a public cause, such as in the case of civil disobedience, s/he shows contempt for the dignity of the members of his or her political community due to the absence of publicity that characterizes corruption, and this is the case whether or not the particular subjective rights s/he violates are just. It is therefore the harm caused to the dignity of citizens that the relational approach must condemn in political corruption.

35We might however object that this approach still runs the risk of presupposing what it seeks to establish, namely that citizens have an absolute right to participate in the determination of public norms and that any circumvention of these norms is unjust to those whose rights, and thus whose political dignity, are violated. This right would first need to be justified in order to show that this violation consists in an injustice toward an individual rather than a simple distortion of the liberal regime. This objection does not aim to deny that any deontological theory may justify the right of citizens to political participation, but instead argues that the relational approach should itself offer such a justification. Since the violation of another person’s right only constitutes an injustice toward him if his right is justifiable (if the right that the political community has accorded him gives him an unjustifiable level of control over our life, for example, why should we respect it?), the relational theory must explain why the right to political participation is justifiable. This is because this approach does not simply strive to describe corruption as a digression from the treatment that is supposed to be given to the citizens of a democracy according to their political rights, or by virtue of their status as rights holders, and therefore to condemn corruption as a disintegration of democratic principles; above all, it seeks to show that this digression constitutes an injustice. We cannot therefore presuppose, in order to establish that the violation of the right of citizens to political participation is unjust, that this right is just or cannot be harmed.

36It would therefore appear that the relational approach is not equipped to distinguish itself from the institutional approach: although it shows, with greater exhaustiveness, that corruption harms the fundamental principles of our democracies, it is unable to describe it as a true injustice short of demonstrating that the right of citizens to political participation is itself just. Proponents of the relational approach may however retort [41] that, in their view, the value of public regulations stems from their ability to promote and protect certain social goods, and that it is due to the importance attached by citizens to the effective protection of the latter that the violation of such rules by corrupt public officials is unjust. In other words, the civil servant or elected official who violates the public regulations that govern the exercise of his or her duties commits an injustice because s/he circumvents regulations whose democratic legitimacy affirms the importance we attach to the social goods that they seek to protect (such as the right of women to have an abortion within the public hospital sector). By focusing on this aspect of corruption, proponents of the relational approach avoid the double pitfall that consists, in order to describe corruption as an injustice, in presupposing either that the specific rights violated by corrupt public officials are just, or that the right of citizens to political participation cannot be violated without causing an injustice.

37It is this argumentative strategy that I will now defend. [42] To demonstrate, as the relational approach aims to establish, that political corruption consists in treating citizens’ interests in an unjustifiable manner, [43] I propose to apply the analysis not to rights but to the expectations that public officials lead us to form about the way in which they intend to exercise the power associated with their roles. In addition to avoiding the issue of circularity described above, I hope to thus avoid the pitfalls of an analysis that, by condemning the violation of subjective rights by corruption, struggles to determine what is specific about the relational injustice of corruption compared to overt violations of our rights, such as the official invalidation of the rights of an entire section of the population. Since not all violations of our rights (whether to political participation or to abortion) or of our status as rights holders are the product of corruption, such a normative evaluation of corruption would be unable to adequately identify the outlines of its subject.

What we owe to each other

38Before developing my analysis of the ill of corruption in terms of the violation of citizens’ expectations, it is necessary to briefly present the moral theory that provides the tools to do so. Scanlonian contractualism is a theory of interpersonal morality. Since it was first outlined, [44] it has sought to respond to two objectives. First, to identify the standards of reasoning we must observe in order to ensure that our moral judgments may be right—just as algebraic theory defines the rules of calculation that enable us to make appropriate judgments in relation to numbers. Second, the theory of justification that we propose in response to the first objective must be such that we can see that we have good reason to be concerned with interacting with others as prescribed or authorized by the moral principles that it holds to be valid. A theory that justifies moral principles by appealing to considerations that leave us totally cold would fail this second challenge, since we would then struggle to see why we should take morality seriously. [45]

39Since contractualism covers the area of interpersonal morality, the moral principles that it justifies or invalidates relate to what we can demand of other people or what we owe them in our capacity as moral agents, and not simply by virtue of the particular social role that we each occupy, whether as spouse, friend, relative, employee, or politician. According to this theory, interpersonal morality is the sphere within which we make legitimate demands of each other on our own behalf. For a demand made of another person to be admissible from the point of view of moral theory, it must be such that all the persons it concerns—both the addresser and the addressee, but also any third parties who may be affected by a principle allowing individuals to make such demands of each other—may accept it or, in the Scanlonian formulation, that none of them can reasonably reject it. This is what must ensure that the principle allowing me to make a particular claim of another person, or to interact with him or her in a particular manner, is justifiable to him.

40According to Scanlon, [46] respecting another person, or appreciating the value of rational life, involves always acting in a manner that is justifiable to him or her. The moral value of human beings stems from their rationality, which is the capacity of any rational creature to understand, formulate, assess, and reject normative judgments about reasons—that is, about considerations that count in favor of adopting a given belief, attitude, or behavior. If I step on your foot through guilty negligence, I show contempt for your moral value as a rational creature, as I do not take into account the reasons that you have to demand me not to act in this way. The fact that an action must be justifiable to another person does not however equate to saying that the moral validity of the principle authorizing me to treat him or her as I do simply depends on his or her psychological willingness to accept a particular justification of this action. To be valid, a moral principle must be such that no one could reasonably reject it: if the other person objects, through pure selfish interest or contempt for the reasons that have driven me to act as I have, to the principle that authorizes my action, this does not establish the unjustifiability of this principle. Equally, if, by dint of misleading persuasion and by abusing the low self-esteem of the individual I mistreat, I succeed in making him or her accept the treatment I inflict on him or her, this does not make it any more morally admissible.

41Justifying an action therefore consists in providing the other person with the reasons that count in favor of this action and that would not be reasonable for him or her to dismiss, while taking into account the reasons s/he may give me, from the point of view of the position s/he occupies in the situation in which we find ourselves, to contest the validity of the maxim of action that I propose to follow. According to Scanlon’s formulation, an action is morally unjustifiable, or wrongs another person, if and only if any principle authorizing it, under the present circumstances or in any similar situation, could be reasonably rejected by individuals motivated to model their behavior on general principles that should serve as the basis for an informed, unforced agreement between individuals sharing this motivation. [47] Since, for the action in question to be justifiable, the principle that authorizes it must not be reasonably rejectable, the arguments that we examine must take the form of objections to the principle competing with that which we are seeking to defend. Contractualism thus identifies the type of considerations that we need to take into account and the standards of reasoning that must be followed in order to formulate principles that are not reasonably rejectable: to know whether our moral judgments are valid, it is necessary to see whether the actions they authorize, recommend, or prohibit comply with or oppose such principles.

42The theory set out in What We Owe to Each Other defines three restrictions. [48] To be admissible, an objection to a moral principle must be personal, individual, and generic. This means that it must be able to be stated by an individual on his or her own behalf and that it must also refer to the way in which the interests of any individual who comes to occupy the same position as him or her would be affected by the action we are evaluating. Since contractualism is a theory of interpersonal morality, it excludes from practical deliberation impersonal demands—which refer to something other than the human interests at stake in the situation under examination—; collective demands—since it is the moral value of other individuals that must be recognized, what matters are the interests that individuals may defend on their own behalf, not those of a collectivity; and non-generic demands—that is, those proper to the specific individual involved in the situation in question rather than the way in which the interests of any individual who might one day find himself or herself in the same situation are affected, as we are looking for principles that can be true in general.

43Once we have identified the personal, individual, and generic objections that each party to the moral contract may present to the principle that the adverse party favors, the principle that passes the test of non-reasonable rejectability is that which best withstands the strongest of these objections. If, for example, Peter and James are both injured but Peter is more seriously injured than James, both of them have personal, individual, and generic reasons to demand that they are provided with care as soon as possible. But since Peter’s health is more severely affected than James’s, the principle that care should be given to James first at Peter’s expense is reasonably rejectable by Peter, while James cannot reasonably reject a principle giving priority to the individual with the most urgent need. The considerations pertinent from a moral point of view concern the way in which different principles would affect the interests of the individuals concerned. We must therefore take into account objections related to personal interests rather than moral beliefs in the validity of a particular behavior, otherwise the contractualist test of non-reasonable rejectability would be circular, since it would introduce into the deliberation precisely the kind of judgment that we want to test.

44Contractualists hope that these restrictions and the comparison of the relative strength of the objections to the competing principles can lead us to formulate valid moral judgments about which we can also see we have good reason to be concerned, once we look to morality. If this hope is not in vain, contractualism will have succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls of utilitarianism that motivated Scanlon to develop his own moral theory. Since utilitarianism focuses solely on the measure of aggregate well-being, it requires us to concentrate on considerations—such as the impersonal nature of a state of affairs in which the happiness of the greatest number is maximized—that, according to Scanlon, are far removed from what truly motivates our moral sensibility, namely our concern for the interests of others and the quality of an interpersonal relationship governed by the ideal of mutual justifiability. Contractualism also claims to have improved on utilitarianism in relation to the issue of justification, since it considers that the restrictions it defines enable us to avoid the counterintuitive implications of utilitarianism, which very often advises us to sacrifice the fundamental interests of a minority in order to satisfy the trivial interests of the masses. Being unable to dwell any further on the issue of the aggregation of individual utilities, I will now turn to the question of what moral light contractualism can shed on the problem of political corruption.

Manipulation, promise-breaking, and political corruption

45Scanlonian contractualism provides us with a theoretical framework within which it is possible for us to develop a unified analysis of all the demands we make of each other within the sphere of interpersonal morality. This means submitting any demand we might make of another person, regardless of the object, to the test of non-reasonable rejectability to see whether it is morally admissible. Contractualist analysis is therefore able to analyze demands relating to moral and political issues as diverse as freedom of expression, tolerance, property rights, distributive justice, and even promise-keeping. This contributes to reducing the gap between the moral and the political since, for contractualism, the political sphere is distinguished from the sphere of interpersonal morality only in that, in the former, the demands we make of each other on our own behalf are formulated in an institutional context. Whether our demands concern institutional arrangements or the behavior of others, they are always requirements that we assert against others on behalf of our interests, since the way in which our institutions function corresponds to a certain way in which we handle one another’s interests. Contractualist analysis can therefore be utilized for the purposes of a normative evaluation of the moral justifiability of our social, economic, and political institutions, as shown in Scanlon’s latest work, [49] which provides a “moral anatomy” of our objections to morally unjustifiable social and material inequalities. Since the choices and actions of elected political representatives and civil servants who exercise a share of public power on our behalf are not without consequences for our interests, the political relationship that binds us to them is also part of the sphere of interpersonal morality.

46Within this sphere, we sometimes create obligations for ourselves with respect to the way in which we are authorized to handle the expectations we lead others to form about what we intend to do: manipulation and promise-breaking are two clear types of breach of these obligations, and I propose to analyze political corruption as another type of violation of the moral duties belonging to this category. In doing so, I aim to show that, beyond the harm that any violation of public institutional rules causes to our institutions or our rights, corruption is a morally unjustifiable treatment of citizens’ interests.

47Let us recall that, for the violation of a right—to abortion or to political participation, to return to the examples discussed above—to be unjustifiable, the moral principle that prohibits it must not be reasonably rejectable. When some people suffer harm or are deprived of a right, they can formulate an admissible objection to the principle that authorizes this violation of their right, for example by denying the validity or absolute nature of it. But to conclusively establish that such a violation constitutes a wrong, or an unjustifiable treatment of the interests of these individuals, the objections that may be addressed to the competing principle, which prohibits the violation of these rights, must also be examined. As the relational approach (at least when it focuses on the violation of rights) does not provide such an analysis, despite the fact that this is essential to demonstrating that the rights violated by acts of corruption are just, it struggles to establish that political corruption is a relational injustice. [50]

48Institutional analyses of the wrong we cause others when we break a promise stipulate that this ultimately depends on the existence of certain social practices. According to these analyses, a social practice consists of a set of norms that are generally respected by individuals and that shape their intentions, expectations, and behaviors. When such a practice is in everyone’s interest, those who transgress these norms act in an unjustifiable manner, like the free rider who, having benefited from the existence of the institution of promise, destroys it by breaking his or her commitments. Scanlon rejects this approach, which he attributes to David Hume and John Rawls, insisting instead on the fact that an individual who does not respect his or her commitments toward another person treats the latter in an immoral manner even if no social practice exists, for example in the state of nature: the wrongs involved in promise-breaking or manipulation “are instances of a more general family of moral wrongs which are concerned not with social practices but rather with what we owe to other people when we have led them to form expectations about our future conduct.” [51] He also adds: “Social practices [...] may provide the means for creating such expectations, and hence for committing such wrongs. But [...] these practices play no essential role in explaining why these actions are wrongs.” [52] This anticipates an affinity between contractualism and the relational approach to political corruption, since the latter seeks to show that corruption is an ill even when it does not damage our institutions. Before looking at which expectations are generated and violated by corrupt public officials, and on the basis of which social practices, it is useful to reproduce in detail the contractualist analysis of manipulation and promise-breaking.

49The prohibition of manipulation is formulated by the following principle:


Principle M: In the absence of special justification, it is not permissible for one person, A, in order to get another person, B, to do some act, X (which A wants B to do and which B is morally free to do or not do but would otherwise not do), to lead B to expect that if he or she does X then A will do Y (which B wants but believes that A will otherwise not do), when in fact A has no intention of doing Y if B does X, and A can reasonably foresee that B will suffer significant loss if he or she does X and A does not reciprocate by doing Y. [53]

51What does this principle tell us, can it be reasonably rejected? According to Scanlon, potential victims of manipulation have strong generic reasons to want to be able to direct their resources and efforts toward objectives that they have chosen themselves, and to seek to avoid their plans being controlled, as prohibited by Principle M, when this suits others. By comparison, the generic reasons that we might have to manipulate another person as often as we want are not strong enough to counterbalance his or her objections to any principle that would provide him or her with weaker protection against manipulation than Principle M. However, if the protection defined by this principle were absolute and prohibited any attempt to manipulate others, it would be contestable by whoever might one day be in A’s position: it may be vital, in an emergency or in order to protect oneself or others against a threat presented by B, to mislead B in order to get out of a difficult situation. This is why Principle M incorporates the restrictive clause “in the absence of special justification.” This principle thus provides us with sufficient protection against the propensity of another person to manipulate us when it suits him or her, without him or her being able to contest this protection. This moral prohibition of manipulation is therefore not reasonably rejectable, and it is unjustifiable to interact with other people in a manner prohibited by this principle. [54]

52Manipulation is not the only infringement that can be committed in relation to the duties that we create for ourselves when we lead other people to form expectations about what we intend to do. In addition to wanting to avoid situations in which we are deliberately misled by others, we also have good reason to want to be assured that promises made to us will be kept, unless we agree to this not being the case, for example by freeing others from their promises to us. We must therefore formulate a principle that defines our duty to fulfill the expectations we generate in other people, without which we would be unable to give each other the assurance that we will act as we have promised. Such a principle aims to protect what Scanlon calls “the value of assurance,” [55] which takes into account the fact that it is sometimes very important for us to be assured that other people will respect their commitments, if only because we want to be able to rely on such an assurance in order to decide what to do. Let us imagine, for example, that you are the happy owner of a cat to whom you and your family are very attached. If I tell you that you can go on vacation with peace of mind and that I will look after him in your absence, the assurance that I will keep my promise is very important to you, since the slightest doubt on this subject risks compromising your plans to go away. The principle of fidelity to our promises is as follows:


Principle F: If (1) A voluntarily and intentionally leads B to expect that A will do X (unless B consents to A’s not doing so); (2) A knows that B wants to be assured of this; (3) A acts with the aim of providing this assurance, and has good reason to believe that he or she has done so; (4) B knows that A has the intentions and beliefs just described; (5) A intends for B to know this, and knows that B does know it; (6) B knows that A has this knowledge and intent, then, in the absence of special justification, A must do X unless B consents to X’s not being done. [56]

54This principle does not appear to be overly demanding from the point of view of potential promise-makers. First, it costs them little to avoid voluntarily and intentionally creating expectations about their future behavior, and thus to avoid binding themselves to other people through a promise: if I do not want to look after your cat, I need simply let you know. Second, the principle contains a restrictive clause: if your house catches fire, I am not bound to enter it myself to feed your cat (which does not prevent me from telling the firefighters that he may be trapped inside the flames). Furthermore, steps (2) and (6) ensure that, once we have communicated our intentions to other people, we do not have to ask their permission each time we want to change our mind: we only need to fulfill the expectations that we have created in other people if we have good reason to believe that they attach importance to our doing so, and if we have been led to give them assurances that we will do so. Given the importance that we attach to the assurance that other people will respect their commitments, their reasons for shirking them cannot counterbalance our objections against a principle providing us with less protection than Principle F. [57] If the conditions described in this principle are met, it is therefore unjustifiable for me not to look after your cat.

55As discussed above, certain social practices give us the means to generate and maintain expectations in other people and allow us to know whether the assurance that they will be met is important to them. When a civil servant signs the employment contract defining the purposes of his or her role and the methods of exercising his or her specific power, s/he obliges him/herself to respect the democratically established rules governing the exercise of his or her duties: freely signing the contract in itself meets conditions (1) to (6) of Principle F and generates the expectation and assurance, among the members of the political community on whose behalf s/he exercises his or her role, that s/he will follow these rules. Furthermore, the fact of having to sign such a contract informs him or her of the importance attached by the citizens and/or potential beneficiaries of his or her public office to the assurance that this is what s/he will do. When an Italian woman seeks an abortion, she hopes to be able to count on the fact that the conscience cause will not be corrupted: uncertainty about this will drive her to seek an abortion outside her country’s public hospital sector. The social practice of signing a contract makes it possible to generate such expectations on a large scale, that is, without civil servants having to knock on all of our doors to assure us that conditions (1) to (6) of Principle F have been met. Equally, when a politician is campaigning, s/he assures us that s/he will not circumvent the official rules governing the exercise of the elective public office that s/he seeks to hold, and s/he knows that this assurance matters to us. If s/he is elected, his or her free and official acceptance of his or her new role renews the act of creating these expectations among the citizens of his or her political community.

56A corrupt public official violates these expectations for the sake of a private project, showing contempt for the importance that we attach to the assurance that s/he will comply with the public norms that govern the exercise of his or her power. The moral principle prohibiting political corruption is therefore as follows:


Principle C: Let there be A, a public official entrusted with X, a public service office or an elective public office; and B, a citizen and/or potential beneficiary of X in whose name X is entrusted to A. If A (who knows that B wants to be assured that, for the duration of office X, A will respect Y—the public regulations governing the exercise of the specific power associated with X) has provided B, through his or her free and official acceptance of office X, with the assurance that s/he will respect Y, then A, in the absence of special justification, must respect Y (unless B agrees to Y’s not being respected), and A is not permitted to promote Z, a project with a private or partisan motivation that cannot be publicly defended as a reason for A to exercise the specific power that is associated with office X in this or that way. [58]

58This principle differs from principles M and F because it would not be appropriate, in order to understand what makes political corruption unjustifiable, to assume that corruption is merely promise-breaking or always the product of manipulation. This is because, to be corrupt, a public official does not need to have made use of manipulation in order to be entrusted with his or her office, and it is not necessary for him or her to intend to circumvent the public regulations that govern the exercise of his or her power before s/he takes up his or her role for such an abuse to be classed as corruption: an analysis of political corruption that sees it as nothing more than manipulation would therefore be overly restrictive. Furthermore, nor does corruption consist of mere promise-breaking, such as when I decide to go on vacation too, despite having agreed to feed your cat until you returned. One of the characteristics of corruption concerns the duplicity and hypocrisy of public officials highlighting their respect for the very rules they are in the process of transgressing. [59] For a promise to be broken, I do not need to affect artificial respect for my commitment: analyzing corruption as mere promise-breaking would therefore be too broad.

59Beyond these differences, the prohibition of political corruption formulated in Principle C enables us to understand what is wrong with corruption by analogy with what is at stake in manipulation and promise-breaking: corruption consists in a public official simultaneously fostering and violating citizens’ expectations about how s/he intends to exercise his or her role. To maintain the expectations s/he has created by freely accepting X, s/he simply needs to continue exercising his or her mandate: not resigning amounts to renewing his or her commitment to respect Y. But a corrupt public official violates these expectations when s/he makes use of his or her public power to promote a surreptitious project, Z, which contravenes Y and in the service of which s/he would be unable to publicly justify having used the powers that have been strictly entrusted to him or her for the sake of properly exercising his or her office X.

60Is Principle C valid? First, it specifies what an individual must do in order to be obliged to respect Y: if s/he does not want to be bound to us by a particular duty, s/he need simply not agree to take on office X. It is therefore easy to avoid falling under such an obligation, particularly if we take into account the considerable efforts that must be deployed in order to be entrusted with a public office (we need only think of the trials of any electoral campaign or the tough competitive examination process for the civil service in France). Given the importance we place on the assurance that Y will be respected—again, we might think of the circumvention of the conscience clause by Italian physicians—, the generic reasons that public officials may have to promote private projects contravening Y are not strong enough to counterbalance our objections to a principle that, compared to Principle C, gives us less protection against political corruption. Principle C also contains the restrictive clause “in the absence of special justification,” which here seeks to authorize certain illegal acts by civil disobedients and whistleblowers who might openly resist Y in order to contribute to the public debate. It should however be noted that this clause limits the obligation to respect Y and not the prohibition to promote Z, since it is precisely the self-interested violation of the expectations created among citizens by the public official that the principle prohibits. Finally, it is necessary to authorize A not to obey Y if B consents to this: it may be that the political community passes laws that redefine A’s role while s/he is still in office, thus altering the obligations that s/he committed to obeying when s/he began his or her role.

61If my analysis is valid, it establishes that political corruption consists in an unjustifiable treatment of the interests of the citizens and/or potential beneficiaries of the public mandate that is abused. While it seeks to supplement institutional readings of corruption, in order to take into account the intuitions to which these readings do not appear to attach importance, my analysis does however avoid focusing on the issue of rights, in order to protect itself from the difficulties encountered by the relational approach in its efforts to identify the ill of political corruption as a relational injustice. My focus on the issue of the violation of the expectations that citizens have of public officials is supported by the theoretical framework of Scanlonian contractualism. This demonstrates the appeal of this moral theory for anyone seeking to address the ill of political corruption, since it is packed with relevant tools for understanding what is wrong with corruption without turning the question toward an unproductive condemnation of the private vices of public officials. [60]


  • [1]
    See, in particular, Inge Amundsen and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad, Corruption: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography (Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2000) (commissioned by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation); Ivar Kolstad, “Corruption As Violation of Distributed Ethical Obligations,” Journal of Global Ethics 8, nos. 2–3 (2012): 239-50; and Céline Spector, “Montesquieu ou les infortunes de la vertu,” Esprit (February 2014): 31–44 (33–34).
  • [2]
    Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions and the Damages of Political Corruption,” Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum 9, no. 1 (2014): 126-45 (127 and 132).
  • [3]
    Mark E. Warren, “What Does Corruption Mean in a Democracy?,” American Journal of Political Science 48, no. 2 (2004): 328–43 (332).
  • [4]
    T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  • [5]
    Inge Amundsen, Political Corruption: An Introduction to the Issues (CMI Working Paper WP 1999:7) (Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute, 1999).
  • [6]
    Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti, “Political Corruption, Individual Behaviour and the Quality of Institutions,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 17, no. 2 (2018): 216–31 (220).
  • [7]
    Warren, “What Does Corruption,” 328.
  • [8]
    Warren, “What Does Corruption,” 329.
  • [9]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption”; Emanuela Ceva, “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice,” Social Philosophy and Policy 35, no. 2 (2018).
  • [10]
    I follow the analyses of Mark E. Warren, Emanuela Ceva, and Maria Paola Ferretti in considering that a civil servant, just like an elected representative, is guilty of political corruption when s/he abuses his or her public power to satisfy a private interest at the expense of the common good. See Warren, “What Does Corruption,” 331–2; and Ceva and Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions,” 130.
  • [11]
    The primary advocates of this approach are Dennis Thompson, Lawrence Lessig, and Seumas Miller: see Dennis Thompson, Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995); Dennis Thompson, “Two Concepts of Corruption: Making Campaigns Safe for Democracy,” George Washington Law Review 73, no. 5 (2005): 1036–69; Lawrence Lessig, “Institutional Corruptions,” Edmond J. Safra Working Papers 1 (2013): 1–20; Lawrence Lessig, “‘Institutional Corruption’ Defined,” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 41, no. 3 (2013): 553–5; Seumas Miller, “Corruption,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2011, available at: (last consulted March 4, 2020); and Seumas Miller, Institutional Corruption: A Study in Applied Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  • [12]
    Warren, “What Does Corruption,” 331.
  • [13]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 219.
  • [14]
    Jean-Fabien Spitz, “Corruption,” in Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, eds. Philippe Raynaud and Stéphane Rials (Paris: PUF, 2003), 142-7 (142). Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.
  • [15]
    For similar remarks, albeit made in different contexts, see Samuel Scheffler, “Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues,” in The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 133–51 (146-7); and Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 53–74 (63).
  • [16]
    Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent (Overland Park, KS: Digireads, 2012), Book 8.
  • [17]
    Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Baker and revised by R. F. Stalley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Book 3.
  • [18]
    Spector, “Montesquieu,” 40–41.
  • [19]
    See Sharon R. Krause, “The Uncertain Inevitability of Decline in Montesquieu,” Political Theory 30, no. 5 (2002): 702–27; and Céline Spector, “Corruption,” Dictionnaire Montesquieu, available at: (last consulted March 4, 2020).
  • [20]
    Spector, “Montesquieu,” 35–36.
  • [21]
    Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 7, chapter 2.
  • [22]
    Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 8, chapter 2.
  • [23]
    Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 8, chapter 3.
  • [24]
    Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 11, chapter 8.
  • [25]
    Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 8, chapter 10.
  • [26]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions,” 131.
  • [27]
    Thompson, Ethics in Congress.
  • [28]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 225.
  • [29]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 228.
  • [30]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 218.
  • [31]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 218; Ceva, “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice.”
  • [32]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 218.
  • [33]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 220.
  • [34]
    G. A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  • [35]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions,” 141.
  • [36]
    Ceva, “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice.”
  • [37]
    Ceva, “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice.”
  • [38]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Political Corruption,” 225–7.
  • [39]
    Ceva and Ferretti, “Liberal Democratic Institutions,” 132–40.
  • [40]
    This example is discussed in Ceva, “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice.”
  • [41]
    As Emanuela Ceva reported to me in an email of January 20, 2019, for which I am extremely grateful.
  • [42]
    Emanuela Ceva convinced me (in her email of January 20, 2019) that the contractualist approach set out in the final section of this article is compatible with her own relational theory (at least if presented as I have done in the above paragraph), and that it complements rather than opposes it.
  • [43]
    It should be noted that, while I want to successfully take into account the intuitions that motivated the development of the relational theory—namely the idea that corruption is a relational injustice—, I do not seek to replace the institutional theory, as do the theorists behind the relational approach, but simply to supplement it by identifying the foundation on which such intuitions are based. As we have seen, the institutional analysis is able to tell us what is wrong with institutional corruption, and there is no need to seek to identify the common source of the ill of individual and institutional corruption, given how distinct our intuitions and judgments are about what is at stake in the two phenomena.
  • [44]
    T. M. Scanlon, “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, eds. Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 103–28.
  • [45]
    The issue of justification is considered in detail in chapter 5 of Scanlon, What We Owe, and the issue of the practical importance of morality, or moral motivation, is analyzed in chapter 4 of the same work.
  • [46]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 103–7.
  • [47]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 4, 106, and 153.
  • [48]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, chapter 5.
  • [49]
    T. M. Scanlon, Why Does Inequality Matter? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). See also the article in which the ideas developed in this work were first presented in a systematic manner: T. M. Scanlon, “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality,” in The Difficulty of Tolerance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 202–18.
  • [50]
    Furthermore, we would be unable to state that the violation of unjust rights necessarily consists in an unjustifiable violation of the dignity conferred on their holders by the fact that they have been accorded these rights: if these rights are unjust, the status enjoyed by their holders by virtue of the very possession of such rights is itself unjustifiable to those who may legitimately be opposed to such rights being accorded to them. The violation, proper to all acts of corruption, of the dignity that is ours by virtue of the rights we enjoy—and that the relational approach condemns as systematically unjust—can only therefore be unjustifiable when the rights in question are themselves just.
  • [51]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 296.
  • [52]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 296.
  • [53]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 298.
  • [54]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 298–9.
  • [55]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 303.
  • [56]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 304.
  • [57]
    Scanlon, What We Owe, 304–5.
  • [58]
    It is clear that citizens cannot legitimately demand public officials to respect unjust public regulations. For Principle C to apply, Y must therefore not be unjust. We do however distinguish the issue of the justification of public regulations from that of the normative evaluation of what is wrong with corruption: corruption is not unjust because it involves the violation of just public regulations (for otherwise we would fall back into the problem of circularity discussed above), but because it consists in the violation of the legitimate expectations—at least when the public regulations in question are not unjust—that citizens hold in relation to the way in which public officials will exercise their mandate.
  • [59]
    Warren, “What Does Corruption.”
  • [60]
    For their valuable comments on previous versions of this text, I am indebted to Luc Foisneau and the anonymous reviewers of the Revue française de science politique, and to the organizers and participants at the “Corruption et démocratie” summer school held at the Maison Suger (Paris) in July 2016. I would also like to warmly thank Emanuela Ceva, who kindly allowed me to consult the final version of her article “Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice” and counselled me against potential errors of interpretation of her relational theory of corruption.

Contemporary approaches to political corruption have largely dispensed with moral theories, instead conceiving of corruption as an ill of a strictly political nature. Institutional analysis condemns it for its attack on our institutions, which are left unable to perform their primary functions, whereas relational analysis denounces the relational injustice committed by corrupt public officials. I shall examine these two approaches, supplementing them with a contractualist perspective according to which political corruption is morally unjustifiable for the same reasons that manipulation and promise-breaking are. In other words, political corruption consists in the violation of the expectations that public officials have led us to develop regarding how they intend to exercise the power associated with their office.

Victor Mardellat
Victor Mardellat is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) (CESPRA, UMR 8036) under the supervision of Luc Foisneau. He is working on a dissertation on the moral and political philosophy of T. M. Scanlon (EHESS, 105 Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris).
Uploaded on on 16/04/2020
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