Tag Archives: corruption

The corrupt, and the corrupted

Corruption is something that’s hard to describe, but we usually “know it when we see it.” Justice  Stewart’s words were originally intended for pornography, but corruption suffers from an indeterminacy of its own. Even when we agree that corruption is happening, it is sometimes difficult to know what it is that is corrupt, and what is doing the corrupting. This last bit—what does the work of corruption—is often a matter of debate.

That’s the subject of Lawrence Lessig’s Daily Beast article today, which makes use of an exchange between Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McCain, in 1999, claimed that the roll of campaign contributions of the size experienced in the USA “corrupted our political ideals;” an idea that McConnell objected to by demanding to know who was corrupt. Lessig argues, in his article, that even in the absence of a corrupt person, a system may still be corrupt. Lessig argues that McCain’s claim

…is not about bad people doing bad things. The complaint is against a bad system, which drives good people to behave in ways that defeat the objectives of the system as a whole.

It is an interesting notion, and an important one—that systems can be corrupt, even when people aren’t. Institutional arrangements, when corrupt, can drive people in directions that are unfavorable.

I think, however, that Lessig is too quick in what he attributes to McCain. Though he later reneged, denying “that any individual or person is guilty of corruption in a specific way,” McCain claims that the campaign contribution system at present is a corrupting influence—one that corrupts everyone:

In truth, we are all shortchanged by soft money, liberal and conservative alike. All of our ideals are sacrificed. We are all corrupted. I know that is a harsh judgment. But it is, I am sorry to say, a fair one. And even if our own consciences were to allow us to hide from it, the people we are privileged to serve will not.

The importance of this comment can’t be understated. McCain isn’t necessarily saying that anyone is corrupt. He is however, saying that he and others are corrupted, and that they’ve been compromised in some way [1]. I’ve talked about being compromised elsewhere, but here I want to pull apart this notion of being corrupted—compared to being corrupt—a bit more.

The whole point Lessig wants to make is that institutional arrangements—for example, the effect of campaign contributions on the political process—change behavior. But in talking about the ways that corrupt institutions pervert individual actions, it is still important to talk in the language of individuals. The effect that McConnell wanted to (wrongly) identify as unidirectional—corrupt people cause corrupt institutions—flows in the other direction as well. Corrupt institutions do bear on individuals, as Lessig claims, but in doing so it can leave them corrupted, or even corrupt.

The difference between being corrupted, and being corrupt, is—if anything—very fine indeed. It seems plausible, however, to say that someone has been corrupted, or has had their actions corrupted, even if we don’t want to go so far as to say they are corrupt. That is, they’ve been compromised, but they do so under duress, and with little other options available.

This, of course, is a fine line to tread. Means don’t justify ends, but if your means are so limited as to make a problematic means the only way to a desirable end, then we make the best with what we have. Generally, we probably want to elect representatives who intend to bring about good outcomes, and promote reforms. These representatives may be compromised in doing that—no-one is perfect—but it seems that sometimes the price of the right person not stepping into that arena is too high. 

So maybe, in principle, we can have a corrupt system, with corrupted, compromised members, but no one genuinely corrupt. Of course, that seems somewhat optimistic: if there are people in congress actively opposing reform designed to redress a corrupt and corrupting institution, then they are most likely corrupt. Moreover, those who exploit a particular corrupt institutional arrangement for their own gain are certainly corrupt.

I don’t mean corrupt in the sense of unlawful activity, and I certainly believe that this is what McCain was attempting to cover for when denying that anyone was guilty of corruption. Representatives, Senators, and presidential nominees can accept and use campaign contributions, and do so in a lawful manner. Lobbyists aren’t breaking laws. But they, at times, doing the wrong thing.

We should also keep in mind that those who become compromised are still doing something wrong, even if there is no or little other alternative. And insofar as they are overly tardy in assisting in rectifying the system that corrupts them, they should be held to account. Hopefully, enough of these corrupted people will help in the reforms Lessig is championing, such as the American Anti-Corruption Act (ACA).

What legislation like the ACA hopes to accomplish is the make the unethical, unlawful. That’s a great thing. But it is also important to call out the individually corrupt, and recognize the corrupted, when we see them. Institutional reform is vital, but regulation and law rarely make corruption go away by themselves—corruption often occurs within the scope of lawful activity, and the genius of motivated people out to pervert something good can be nothing more than breathtaking. Preventing corruption does require regulation and legislation, but also requires vigilance and loud voices. We should make sure that we pay attention to the individual, as well as the institutional; to the corrupted, as well as the corrupt.

[1] McCain uses the term “corrupt” in three different ways in that speech. In his first usage, he refers to the Government as corrupt. In his second and fourth, he refers to the presence of campaign contributions being a corrupting factor. In his third—used in the quote above—he refers to the representatives as corrupted.

Being and Becoming Compromised: An Article for Impact Ethics

Last weekend I wrote an article for Impact Ethics titled: “Being and Becoming Compromised: Conflicts of Interest in Bioethics“:

What is it that makes a conflict of interest more problematic than mere partiality? The answer, Rob MacDougall wants to argue, is “nothing.” Accepting money to argue on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry is no different than protecting the vulnerable; it doesn’t matter to which group you are partial, or why.

My article was a response to a post by Rob MacDougall, who argued that there is nothing problematic—in fact, that there is something right—about bioethicists advocating on behalf of (among others) pharmaceutical companies, and being paid to do so. “Being and Becoming Compromised” is the last in a series of articles on the topic; the other responses are listed below:

I—being clearly partial to these articles, though perhaps not compromised to the extent that I have a conflict of interest—recommend that you go and give them a read.

Revisiting Dual-Use and Corruption

The US has been busy publishing policies on the regulation of research that has both benevolent and harmful applications, also “dual-use” research. The polices focus on dual-use research of concern (or DURC), a fashionable way of identifying a subset of dual-use research that:

based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security. [USG, p. 2]

Two policies  on DURC showed up at the end of February, the first being the long-winded “Framework for Guiding U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Funding Decisions about Research Proposals with the Potential for Generating Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 Viruses that are Transmissible among Mammals by Respiratory Droplets.” This  framework has been floating around in draft form since December 2012, and I argued in January that we should be concerned—among other things—about corruption.  If research that posed a significant risk to human health was diverted to agencies that pursued classified research, there is a potential for a scenario where classified agencies start pursuing DURC that might be better refused funding or redesigned to produce more benefits with less risks of misuse. Classified dual-use research in the DoE and CIA has a patchy and controversial history, and the aim of policies that purport to regulate DURC, if anything, should be to reduce the amount of potentially harmful research happening, not increase it or move it away from public accountability.

Happily, the gain-of-function framework was amended along lines that mitigate the potential for corruption.  But a related problem has appeared with the release for consultation of the “United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern,” a broader policy aimed at assisting federal agencies in making decisions about what dual-use research to fund.

When addressing the review process of dual-use research, the policy addresses the question of what types of groups are suitable as review bodies.  This is where the policy should give cause for concern. As it currently stands, review bodies may include:

(1) a committee established for dual use review; (2) an extant committee (such as an Institutional Biosafety Committee [IBC]) … or (3) an externally administered committee (e.g., an IBC or review entity at a neighboring or regional institution or a commercial entity). [USG, p. 11, emphasis mine]

There isn’t anything wrong with an extant or external committees involving themselves in the review of dual-use research on the face of things. But there are certain types of involvement that tend to lead to bad outcomes.  The types of outcomes I’m most concerned with here are those where the stated aims of the policy are corrupted—when the policy .

When it comes to dual-use, we should be careful about the types of entity we let function as committees. Commercial entities that participate in research in areas typically associated with dual-use life sciences research (e.g., virology, synthetic biology) might possess the relevant expert knowledge to make calls on the funding of DURC, but have self-interested reasons in making sure DURC is pursued for publication, profit, or patent.

The policy makes an attempt to address this, requiring that any member of the review entity be recused if they have a direct financial interest, except “to provide specific information requested by the review entity.” But this is really limited as a safeguard, as it still allows for a lot of involvement by those with direct conflicts of interest, as long as the committee is the one doing the asking. It doesn’t cover less direct involvement—one doesn’t need to have direct financial involvement with a piece of research to have a conflict of interest. Finally, the legislation recuses individuals, but not groups.  So while some members of a commercial entity may have direct financial interests and be recused, there is no provision for excusing a commercial entity qua group from functioning as a committee.

Why is this important? Because the history of oversight of research is also a history of conflict of interests and corruption. The last decade has seen a cavalcade of horrors when it comes to the ways that institutions nominally dedicated to the public good are compromised by vested interests.  When pharmaceutical companies can employ researchers as consultants and as researchers on their drugs, conflicts of interest exists.  When the Department of Defence can covertly mill weapons-grade anthrax in the name of a biodefence program without public oversight, conflicts exist. And should companies engaged in or benefiting from DURC be allowed to decide for themselves what types of research should or shouldn’t be funded, conflicts and corruption will occur.

All in all, researchers who study DURC should be excited about some legislation coming out that is more than the existing advisory capacity of earlier modes of review.  But the legislation coming out is worrying—there is the possibility for stacking the review process either in (unjustified) favour of government interests, or private. The debate so far has focussed on the former, but there is also good reason to be suspicious of the latter.