Corruption, Cultural Relativism, and Edmund Burke

An occupational hazard of working on corruption and anticorruption is the frequency with which one encounters some version of the claim (in more or less sophisticated forms) that “corruption” is a modern Western concept, and that in traditional/developing/non-Western cultures, behaviors that modern Westerners would see as corrupt (like bribery, nepotism, or diversion of government resources for personal uses) would be seen as somewhere between acceptable and outright legitimate. An even stronger version of this position maintains that when Westerners find themselves operating in one of these “Other” environments, it is entirely acceptable to operate according to “local norms”—that is, to engage in bribery and similar acts.

Now, there’s of course some truth to the claim that the meaning of corruption varies across times and places, but I’ve always thought the claim that corruption was a modern Western notion, with minimal applicability to developing/non-Western societies, was both factually inaccurate and tinged with a bit of cultural condescension masquerading as cultural sensitivity.

I touched on this a bit in post a few months back, focusing on contemporary debates about corruption as an issue in development policy, but I also think it’s useful to consider these debates in historical perspective. On that note, a little while back I came across a terrific article on the intellectual history of these debates.  This article, by Padideh Ala’i at American University’s Washington College of Law, focuses on Edmund Burke’s role as lead prosecutor in the (unsuccessful) effort to impeach Warren Hastings, a former Governor-General of India, for extensive corruption during his tenure.

As Ala’i’s lucid description of the trial proceedings reveals, a central part of Hastings’ defense was that the conduct in question, though seemingly corrupt, was culturally acceptable in India, whose people–according to Hastings’ defense–understood nothing but “arbitrary power.”  To use the modern terminology, Hastings was making the cultural relativism argument.

Burke’s rebuttal (again, ultimately unsuccessful) is striking in its modern resonance:

[Y]our Lordships know that these gentlemen have formed a plan of geographical morality, by which the duties of men, in public and private situations, are not to be governed by their relation to the great Governor of the Universe, or by their relation to mankind, but by climates . . . latitudes: as if, when you crossed the equinoctial, all the virtues die … by which they unbaptize themselves of all that they learned in Europe …. This geographical morality we do protest against; Mr. Hastings shall not screen himself under it ….

[W]e think it necessary, in justification of ourselves, to declare that the laws of morality are the same everywhere, and that there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and of oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa and all the world over. This I contend for not in the technical forms of it, but I contend for it in the substance.

There’s much more to be said about both the history and the contemporary argument, but for now I wanted to commend Professor Ala’i’s article to anyone else who might be interested in learning some more about the history of cultural relativism arguments as they relate to corruption. The full citation for the article is:

Ala’i, Padideh. 2000. The Legacy of Geographical Morality and Colonialism: A Historical Assessment of the Current Crusade Against Corruption. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 33: 877-932.

2 thoughts on “Corruption, Cultural Relativism, and Edmund Burke

  1. Matthew, thanks for flagging Professor Ala’i’s article and for nicely summarizing it. Like you, I find that delving into history often illuminates current debates on the issues. For those who agree I highly recommend Barry McGill, “Conflict of Interest: English Experience 1782 – 1914” in the Western Political Quarterly, volume 12, number 3, September 1959, pages 808 -827. McGill traces how changes in the British economy along with changing views of the role of Members of Parliament produced new rules to regulate conflicts of interest — both of ministers and private MPs.

    The best part may be his description of the debate at the end of the 19th century about the wisdom of barring MPs from being directors of private firms. While the Times of London editorialized in favor of such a ban, the Economist warned that –

    The only effect of a self-denying rule would be to deprive Parliament of necessary information and to create in the long run a class of “lobbyists,” or go-betweens, between industrial undertakings and the Legislature, who would do far more mischief to the reputation of Parliament than the director-Member will ever cause. . . .

    I leave it to readers to judge the accuracy of the Economist’s prophesy.

  2. Nice essay. Corruption is corruption no matter what. Some would like to bring in the issue of culture into the debate to try to make a difference, or snippets and anecdotes here and there to justify things. Bashar Malkawi

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