Why Shouldn’t I Cheat? Everybody Else Does

England no longer expects every man to do — or even to know — his duty, and corruption is creeping into our moral culture

The first major shock for the British in our new century is that we have become seriously corrupt. The scandal of parliamentary expenses had hardly died down before we were plunged into the whimsies of an educational system in which examinations rather lost their challenge for students who had been coached in the right answers beforehand. And these shocks were dramatised in the Big Loot of August when rioters and arsonists had the run of large areas of British cities. As if all this were not enough, the very model of moral conduct in sport, namely cricket, has been tarnished, not merely internationally, but even down to county level. 

It is these events that have partly given rise to the mistake of believing that capitalism is failing. There might possibly be a case for increased, or perhaps just smarter, regulation of commerce, but there is certainly no alternative to the basic freedoms of our economic life. The rise of corruption among us is essentially a moral collapse and, if anything can be done about it, the solution can only be found in the moral and social sphere. But first we must be clear about what corruption actually is.

In the first instance, of course, the word is a metaphor referring to disease or putrefaction, which should bring a vivid perceptual revulsion against human conduct that might otherwise seem to be no different from lots else going on. Corruption involves both the doing of bad things and the not doing of good ones. The commonest form is when some official will only perform his duty — issuing a passport or a licence, for example — on payment of a bribe. This reportedly often happens in Africa. It has been estimated that the average Kenyan family spends about a third of its income on bribes. In such countries, corruption is systemic rather than — as we hope in Britain — episodic. Every barrel has a few bad apples, but a whole barrel of them is a different thing altogether.   

Diagnosing corruption requires the idea of duty, because our common codification of the moral life in terms of rights sometimes facilitates claims to corrupt payments. It can make things worse.  

In international league tables ranking corruption, Britain usually scores quite well, along with other Anglophone states, northern Europe and one or two Asian paradigms such as Singapore and Hong Kong. The rest of the world, we may conclude, is fairly systematically corrupt. The causes of this are complex, but two are evident. Most states in the world, for all their modish allegiance to institutional democracy in the form of elections and parliaments, have a tradition of despotic rule. In this tradition, success depends on accommodation with power, and bribes or favours are a great help. Secondly, modern individualism is only slowly replacing a society of status structures — in terms of caste, seniority or sex — which can seldom avoid allowing the higher status considerable scope to tyrannise over the lower.

The interesting question thus becomes: why have the British so far been among the less corrupt peoples of the world, and what has changed to make us worse? One important factor has been that we so commonly endow individuals with an expanding set of rights. A right is a rule that sustains some kind of demand, and although international declarations and local judges define what rights are, demands for new rights are increasing. When members of the House of Commons were criticised for claiming absurd expenses, they all came up with the same chorus: “We didn’t break any rules.” In some cases they did not, indeed, but many clearly lacked moral integrity, and it is integrity we need to consider. 

What is it that makes people behave with integrity? At the most accessible level, it is the attitude taken when people say “I’m too proud to beg” or “I’m too proud to take a bribe”. Underlying these utterances about one’s own identity will be found a morality of honour. The great achievements of our civilisation often result from failure, and the interesting failure in this case was that Europeans never managed to agree on a single system of rightness. Even agreeing that we ought to do the right thing, of course, opens up endless disputes about what this might be. But in the European monarchies classically described by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), the individualist criterion of honour was also recognised as a distinct element of the moral life. The famous case cited by Montesquieu was the St Bartholemew’s Day massacre: a clash between doing the right thing (in this case obeying the king of France) on the one hand, and the dishonour that would be involved in obeying Charles IX’s order to kill Huguenots on the other. 

Honour began, no doubt, as a claim to superiority by those who fancied themselves superior, but in modern times, versions of it (such as conscience, pride and integrity) have become part of the ordinary equipment of many Europeans. And it depends not on status, as in the so-called “honour killings” in some Asian cultures, but on identity. Doing the right thing may thus come into conflict with doing the honourable thing: it is a matter of identity or, to express this point most precisely, honour is the recognition of one’s duty to oneself. And it is in the morality of acting in terms of duties to oneself that Western life has, at least until recent times, been distinguished from other cultures.

The British paradigm for respecting duties to oneself has long been sport, which was indeed self-consciously used by Victorian headmasters to encourage something called “character” in the conduct of their charges. By contrast with the serious business of life, sport might well seem to be the kind of frivolous pastime that would not tempt the players to cheat or lie. Nothing important hangs on who wins, it might seem, however passionate some players might become. The ideal lay in the playing, not in the winning, and this respect for the rules of the game was to be carried over into all areas of life. And so indeed it often was, in those innocent days before people knew that they had rights. The appearance of large financial stakes has, of course, significantly changed that.  

The standard motive given for corruption these days is often said to be greed, possibly because declaring it to be such a vice gives a certain moral cachet to the speaker in question. It also picks up the idea that our whole capitalist system is based on this particular vice. But moral clichés ought to be avoided, and in the case of some corruptions, vices are certainly not the whole story. When teachers go (and pay to go) to conferences on the examining system given by the examiners, motives of interests will no doubt be present on both sides. Schools depend on meeting examination result targets, and exam boards compete for schools to use them. But one clear motive of many people involved is almost the opposite of greed. It is something like decency, compassion, niceness — the desire to help one’s students. The same motive is likely to play some part in the remarkable explosion of students — up to one in three — graduating with first-class honours degrees. Most of these events are not corrupt according to the economic criteria discussed by Ian Senior in his brilliant IEA pamphlet on this problem — Corruption, the World’s Big C: Cases, Causes, Consequences, Cures — but they are certainly corrupt in the moral sense that concerns me. 

The point may be put in this way: there is a generally understood ideal structure specifying how to engage in most activities in a modern society, from playing a game to a business transaction. Everybody knows that lying about the score, harassing the referee, pretending injury and various other tricks of the professional sporting trade, for example, are not “playing the game”. Every public official with a duty to perform knows that he ought not to demand a bribe before doing it. These ideal specifications of how an activity ought to be conducted most plausibly take the form of a schedule of duties. That is the reason we must invoke the concept of duty in explaining the rise of corruption. The concept of a right, as I keep on emphasising, is no help — indeed, sometimes it is mischievous. Having a right can be used to justify the claim to a bribe by a complaint about the low level of wages paid to whoever demands the bribe. Or it may be invoked as support for the claim that the corrupt practice is merely part of some recognised system in the culture. It is only the concept of duty that clarifies the dishonesty involved in corrupt conduct.         

If we inquire more broadly as to what might cause the rise in corrupt behaviour in Western states, one inescapable consideration must be that it results from a more general collapse of moral understanding. At its simplest level, the mistake consists in taking one’s bearings from nothing more sophisticated than a belief about what other people generally do. A standard instruction to those issuing exhortations or warnings to the public in general is that no message should take the form of saying, “Too many people just throw their litter away, or try to take a train journey without a ticket. It’s a serious problem.” The result of such remarks as these is likely to be that many will take such supposedly common practices as a licence for doing the same.

More generally, the collapse of many conventions about sexual life during the liberations of the 20th century has often been generalised to the belief that all moral judgments are merely matters of taste or “values”. But no one has the slightest doubt about such things as professional responsibility. Nor do we have any doubt that most crimes are also very seriously wrong. Nonetheless, this generalisation from the more relaxed social conventions of our time has created pseudo-moral doctrines such as disapproval of a vice called “judgmentalism”. And it is an important part of this broad spread of moral incompetence that pragmatism has taken such a hold of public policy that the state often controls people by paying them to do what is in one way or another their duty. Obese people, or those who might have sexually transmitted diseases, or young people who ought to be staying on at school can be and some have been induced to do the right thing by the offer of benefits. As the social workers sometimes put it: “Well, it’s effective. It gets results.” Or as Woody Allen expounded a version of this doctrine in a recent film, the principle is simply “whatever works”. Yet to pay people to do what they ought anyway to do is to corrupt them. It suggests that one ought to be provided with incentives to do the right thing.   

The most comprehensive triumph of this collapse of any understanding of the moral life can be found in the medicalisation of fault. A public figure recently caught stealing goods from a supermarket succeeded in turning this event into a kind of publicity triumph by apologising, and proclaiming, “I need help.” But reality was already way ahead of him, in the form of a charity called Crisis Counselling for Shoplifters. The very term “shoplifting” is a morally evasive euphemism for stealing. In our public rhetoric, there are very few bad acts that cannot pass for forms of addiction, and perhaps we should not be holding our breath for the moment when child abuse makes the same claim. Corruption is thus flourishing amid a kind of dottiness in Britain that threatens to turn us all into components of the rehabilitation industry. 

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