Synergies Between Moral Philosophy and Institutional Corruption

by Donald W. Light

The felicitous occasion of Michael Sandel delivering the inaugural Kissel Lecture in Ethics on behalf of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics provides a fit opportunity to advocate for the synergies that can occur by joining moral philosophy with institutional corruption theory in a sustained, mutually beneficial dialogue.

Sandel’s lecture and recent work1 center on how money and commercialization have and can crowd out or corrupt “moral virtues” such as civic duty and participation, democracy, honest-dealing and transparency, succor or duty to the sick or poor, compassion, loyalty, and trustworthiness. This focus nicely complements most of the work at the Center on the corrupting effects of money and commercialization of institutions that are supposed to support and advance one or more of these virtues.

Institutional corruption theory can give Sandel’s work more power and scope into larger realms by considering organizational and institutional examples. There are also major, well-documented cases of how institutional corruption has destroyed a societal good that can give Sandel’s arguments greater scope. For example, Blue Cross health insurance was set up in the 1930s to enable hospital care for seriously ill patients to be paid equitably through community-rated premiums on a non-profit, voluntary basis.2 Commercial companies then began in the 1950s to undermine this societal provision of fairness by risk-rating and offering lower premiums to healthier groups. This increased the risks of the remaining pool in Blue Cross plans and forced them to raise their community-rate premiums, which then enabled the commercials to risk rate even more, by person, occupation, and specific illnesses. I spent several years in two campaigns to stop this form of institutional corruption, at least for a while.3-5 The Affordable Care Act centers on restoring the fairness of the Blues but for everyone. The commercials, however, have kept in the law unfair discrimination against those at higher risk in provisions that no other affluent, capitalist country allows.

Professor Sandel pointed out that context and culture must be taken into account in assessing many moral dilemmas, conflicts, or actions. Several projects at this Center on institutional corruption involve in-depth detail on the context, culture, and countervailing powers at play in a given domain. Sociological and anthropological studies of how forms of structural corruption actually take place can contribute to deliberations in moral philosophy. These may include relationships of togetherness, friendship, and solidarity.6

In complementary ways, institutional corruption theory could benefit from drawing upon selected parts of moral philosophy. As Dan Wikler has pointed out, the claim that something is “corrupt” or “corrupted,” or that one party is corrupting another must be anchored in moral principles outside of that claim.7 In the case of big money corrupting democratic elections, this need is less obvious because big money in elections corrupts the democratic process by definition. As soon as big money becomes a factor, corruption begins. Thus even if the major donors were ideal philosopher-kings, and even if their priorities and values were exemplary, the very institutional arrangements by which big money skews elections corrupts them.

In other realms, however, such as the professions, think tanks, banking, or the pharmaceutical industry, big money is not inherently corrupting. Defining which practices or institutional arrangements are requires an external moral purchase. Self-corruption may take place.8 Consider the case of public housing. If we start with a moral commitment to provide housing for the poor (an argument that needs fuller development), how should it be arranged and funded? How shall builders be paid to construct it? In what ways do legal and institutional arrangements become “corrupt,” as distinct from inefficient or wasteful?

Finally, moral philosophy can help in the search for solutions to given cases of institutional corruption. It can provide depth and persuasive power. We can draw on a wealth of talent and experience, and a focus on Sandel here should not detract from the relevance of work by a number of distinguished moral and political philosophers at or near the Center.

1.    Sandel M. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2012.
2.    Starr P. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. New York: Basic; 1982.
3.    Light DW. Keeping competition fair for health insurance: how the Irish beat back risk-rated policies. American Journal of Public Health 1998;88:745-48.
4.    Light DW. Contributing to scholarship and theory through public sociology. Social Forces 2005;83:1647-53.
5.    Light DW. The practice and ethics of risk-rated insurance. Journal of the American Medical Association 1992;267:2503-8.
6.    Lessig L. Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress - and a Plan to Stop It. New York: Twelve/Hachette; 2011.
7.    Wikler D. What is the moral content of the label "institutional corruption"? In. Boston, MA: Harvard School of Public Health; 2012:1-3.
8.    Salter M. Lawful but corrupt: gaming and the problem of institutional corruption in the private sector. Boston: Harvard Business School 2009.