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Noble Cause Corruption

As we saw in earlier chapters, in the paradigm cases corrupt actions are a species of morally wrong, unlawful, habitual, actions. What of the motive for corrupt actions? We saw above that there are many motives for corrupt actions, including desires for wealth, status, and power. However, there is apparently at least one motive that we might think ought not to be associated with corruption, namely, acting for the sake of good. Here we need to be careful. For sometimes actions that are done for the sake of good are, nevertheless, morally wrong actions. Indeed, some actions that are done out of a desire to achieve good are corrupt actions, namely, acts of so-called noble cause corruption (Miller and Blackler 2005).

The notion of noble cause corruption receives classic expression in the film Dirty Harry (Klockars 1976). Detective Harry Callaghan is trying to achieve a morally good end. He is trying to find a kidnapped girl whose life is in imminent danger. In the circumstances, the only way he can determine where the girl is in order to save her is by inflicting significant pain on the kidnapper, who is otherwise refusing to reveal her whereabouts. The image of Harry Callaghan inflicting non-lethal pain on a murderous psychopath is emotionally, and indeed ethically, compelling. However, the question that needs to be asked is whether in general fabricating evidence, beating up suspects, “verballing” suspects, committing perjury and so on, to obtain convictions is in the same moral category as Harry’s action. The answer is in the negative. For one thing, Harry Callaghan’s predicament is a romantic fiction, or at best a highly unusual combination of circumstances. Most instances of police fabrication of evidence, and even excessive use of force, have not been used to save the life of someone in imminent danger, nor have they been the only means available to secure a conviction. For another thing, the ongoing recourse to such methods not only violates the rights of suspects, it tends to have the effect of corrupting police officers. To this extent, the moral harm that results from such methods not only harms suspects, it can eventually destroy the moral character of those police officers deploying these methods.

The dangers attendant upon noble cause corruption demand that we provide a principled account of the difference between justifiable use of normally immoral methods and noble cause corruption. We can do so as follows. When police officers act in accordance with the legally enshrined moral principles governing the use of harmful methods, they achieve three things at one and the same time. They do what is morally right; their actions are lawful; and they act in accordance with the will of the community.

It might be argued—and seems to have been argued by Alexandra (2000)—that recourse to the notion of the use of harmful methods in accordance with communally-sanctioned objective moral principles does not remove the theoretical problem posed by noble cause corruption, and specifically the alleged (by Alexandra) immorality of even the lawful use of harmful methods by police. To be sure, a suspect who is guilty of a serious crime has not been treated immorally if he is lawfully—and not unreasonably—harmed by being coerced, deceived or sur- veilled.2 But Alexandra asks: What if he is innocent? In that case, harmful methods have been lawfully used, but their use is immoral—suggests Alexandra. Let us respond to this argument. Firstly, the person harmed needs to be a suspect, i.e. there is, or should be, some form of evidence that he is guilty. Nevertheless, sometimes persons reasonably suspected of committing crimes are in fact innocent. However, innocent persons wrongly suspected of crimes are not harmed by the police in the knowledge that they are innocent. So we do not have intentional harming of persons known to be innocent. Rather we have intentional harming of persons thought likely to be guilty; and we have unintended harming of the innocent as a by-product of police work. Troublesome as this is, it does not put immorality at the core of the police function, as Alexandra seems to suggest. If there are some police methods that do involve intentional harming of those known to be innocent, e.g. intrusive surveillance of a criminal engaged in sexual activity with a woman known not to be a criminal, then perhaps these methods ought not to be deployed.

The moral problem of noble cause corruption arises in policing when moral considerations pull in two different directions, and especially when the law thwarts, rather than facilitates, morally desirable outcomes. But here we need to distinguish types of case. Assume that a police officer breaks a morally unacceptable law, but acts in accordance with the law as it ought to be. For example, suppose a police officer refuses to arrest a black person who is infringing the infamous “pass laws” in apartheid South Africa. Such a police officer is not engaged in noble cause corruption; for breaking a morally unacceptable law is not engaging in corruption, and therefore not engaging in noble cause corruption.

A second kind of case involves a police officer breaking a law which, although not morally unacceptable, is nevertheless flawed, in that it does not adequately [1]


reflect the ethical balance that needs to be struck between the rights of suspects and the rights of victims. For example, assume that a law only allows a suspect to be detained for questioning for a limited period of time; a period which is wholly inadequate for certain kinds of criminal investigations. The law is not necessarily immoral, but it ought to be changed. A police officer who detains a suspect for slightly longer than this period has technically breached the law; but the officer has not violated a suspect’s rights in any profound sense. Once again, the term “corruption” is too strong. This is not a case of noble cause corruption; though it is a case of unlawful, and perhaps unethical, conduct.

A third kind of case involves a police officer violating a suspect’s legally enshrined moral rights by, for example, using the third degree or fabricating evidence or committing perjury. The point about these kinds of case is that the police officer has not only acted illegally, but also immorally. If a police officer engages in this kind of corrupt activity, and does so in order to achieve morally desirable outcomes, such as the conviction of known perpetrators of serious crimes, then the officer is engaged in noble cause corruption. Let us examine this kind of case further.

  • [1] am assuming here that the law appropriately tracks reason-based ethical principles.
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