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Noble Cause Corruption as a Defining Feature of Policing

Thus far I have been motivating the view that police corruption can be accommodated within my overall theory, or quasi-theory, of corruption and of noble cause corruption. In what remains of this chapter I want to address the claim associated with Machiavelli, Max Weber, Michael Walzer and others that there is something special about certain roles such as the role of political leaders, military officer and, in particular, police officers, such that engaging in noble cause corruption is somehow a defining feature of these roles (Walzer 1973). Here I am assuming that these theorists are making a stronger claim than the one that I am committed to. I have argued for the weaker claim that in policing (and, presumably, elsewhere) there may well be morally justified acts of noble cause corruption. Nevertheless, I reject the claim that engaging in noble cause corruption is a defining feature of the police role (Coady 2001: 407).[1]

This strong kind of claim is sometimes made in the context of a discussion of the so-called problem of dirty hands. Here it is important to first note some conceptual differences between the concept of dirty hands and the concept of noble cause corruption. The idea of dirty hands is that political leaders, and perhaps the members of some other occupations such as soldiers and police officers, necessarily perform actions that infringe central or important principles of common morality, and that this is because of some inherent feature of these occupations. Such ‘dirty’ actions include lying, betrayal, and especially the use of violence.

The first point to be made here is that by my lights it is far from clear that such acts are necessarily acts of corruption, and hence necessarily acts of noble cause corruption. In particular, it is not clear that all such acts undermine to any degree institutional processes, roles or ends. (This is compatible with such acts having a corrupting effect on the moral character of the persons who perform them, albeit not on those traits of their moral character necessary for the discharging of their institutional role responsibilities as (say) politicians, police or soldiers.)

The second and related point is that some putatively ‘dirty’ actions are indeed definitive of political roles, as they are of police and military roles. For example, earlier I argued that a defining feature of police work is its use of harmful and normally immoral methods, such as deceit and violence, in the service of the protection of (among other things) human rights (Miller and Blackler 2005, Chap. 1). Clearly, a similar definition is required for the role of soldier. And since political leaders necessarily exercise power and—among other things—lead and direct police and soldiers, they too will participate in ‘dirty’ actions in this sense. However, such use of deceit, violence and so on, can be, and typically is, morally justified in terms of the publicly sanctioned, legally enshrined, ethical principles underlying police and military use of harmful and normally immoral methods, including the use of deadly force. In short, some putatively ‘dirty’ actions are publicly endorsed, morally legitimate, defining practices of what I, and most people, take to be morally legitimate institutions, viz. government, and police and military institutions. I take it that the advocates of ‘dirty hands’ intend to draw our attention to a phenomenon above and beyond such publicly endorsed, legally enshrined and morally legitimate practices. But what is this alleged phenomenon (Weber 1991: 77-78)?[2]

According to Walzer (1973), politicians necessarily get their hands dirty and in his influential article on the topic he offers two examples (Walzer 1973: 164-7). The first is of a politician who in order to get re-elected must make a crooked deal and award contracts to a ward boss. The second is of a political leader who must order the torture of a terrorist leader if he is to discover the whereabouts of bombs planted by the leader and set to go off killing innocent people. I take it that these examples consist of scenarios in which politicians are not acting in accordance with publicly endorsed, legally enshrined, morally legitimate practices; indeed, they are infringing moral and legal requirements.

The first example presupposes a corrupt political environment of a kind that in a liberal democracy ought to be opposed and cleansed rather than complied with. Moreover, it is far from clear why the politician’ s re-election is an overriding moral imperative. The second example is hardly an example of what politicians in well ordered, liberal democracies routinely face; indeed, it is evident that even in the context of the so-called war on terror such cases only arise very occasionally, if at all. I conclude that Walzer’s examples go nowhere close to demonstrating the necessity for politicians, let alone police or soldiers, to ‘dirty’ their hands in the sense of infringing central or important moral principles. At best, the second illustrates the requirement to infringe moral principles for the sake of the greater good in some highly unusual emergencies (Miller 2005).

There might in fact be some contexts in which central or important moral principles do need to be infringed on a routine basis, albeit for a limited time period. Such contexts might include ones in which fundamental political institutions had themselves collapsed or were under threat of collapse such as happened in Colombia during the period of the ascendancy of the Colombian drug baron, Pablo Escobar (Miller et al. 2005).

Now the above situation is one of emergency, albeit institutional emergency. So even if one wanted to support all or some of the methods used by the Colombian authorities one would not be entitled to generalise to other non-emergency political contexts. Moreover, there are reasons to think that many of the above-described dirty methods, e.g. execution and use of criminals to combat criminals, or at least the extent of their usage, were in fact counter-productive. For example, use of other criminal groups against Escobar tended to empower those groups. Further, such methods although ‘dirty’ are not as dirty as can be. In particular, methods such as execution of drug lords are directed at morally culpable persons, as opposed to innocent persons. I take it that at the dirty end of the spectrum of dirty methods that might be used in politics are those methods that involve the intentional harming of innocent persons.

However, the main point to be made here is that even if such dirty methods are morally justified it is in the context of an argument to the effect that their use was necessary in order to re-establish political and other institutions in which the use of such dirty methods would presumably not be permitted. Accordingly, such scenarios do not demonstrate that the use of dirty methods are a necessary feature of political or police leadership.

  • [1] This view in relation to dirty hands is espoused by C.A.J. Coady. On the other hand, Coady seemsalso to be endorsing a version of moral absolutism, and if so, he would not want to accept a rangeof what I would regard as morally justified acts of noble cause corruption.
  • [2] Max Weber seems to want to avoid the whole problem by defining political leadership purely interms of one of its distinctive means, namely the exercise of physical force. This seems to me to bean unjustifiably narrow and negative view of political leadership and politics more generally.
 
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