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.

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