Monday, November 30, 2009

The Good Bribe

The Prime Minister was striving to be a morally conscious politician, however oxymoronic the ambition may sound. A certain businessman who was known for his corruption and sleaze but who had successfully wriggled out of all criminal and civil convictions desired to be hailed and respected by the whole world. He approached the PM with an offer that he would donate 10 million pounds to help provide clean drinking water in scores of villages in Africa, provided the PM guarantees that he will be knighted in the upcoming New Year's honors list. If the PM were to disagree to this "offer", the businessman assured that he would surely squander his money, rather than put it to good use. Does it make any moral sense for the PM to sell one of his country's highest honors for a bribe that would be overwhelmingly beneficial to thousands of people? (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", Julian Baggini)

One the one hand this scenario seems to be a little more straightforward because the stakes don't seem to be high on either sides. Well, of course thousands would be deprived of clean drinking water, but it is clear that the means by which clean water could be provided is, by Kantian terms, categorically wrong. But from a Utilitarian perspective, does it seem like moral pretentiousness to satisfy one's moral principle at the cost of such an opportunity wherein the consequences reduce to: 10 million pounds being prodigally spent versus being judiciously spent to save thousands and establish a future for many more thousands. And is it even realistic for a political leader to persevere to be so ethically clean?

In the short term, it might seem like honoring the businessman with a Knighthood has very minimal adverse effects to society at large. A businessman with as much clout and wealth would only get the ego-pampering of being addressed as "Sir", which seems harmless enough. But in the long term, the honorable title will slowly be tarnished and lose its honor and distinguished reputation, especially if such a trend continues. Apart from insulting other merit-worthy members of the Knighthood, it sets a universally unacceptable rule that money can buy reputation and honor. Rather than stand as inspirational role-models, unscrupulous men who weasel their way into being honored, set a horrendous example to young adults. Once morally wrong exceptions of this kind are begun to be made by each political leader, the values in the society will surely start degrading. The consequences of such moral degradation may not be apparent in the short term, but will start to show its ugly face in the long term.

Perhaps my evaluation is unrealistic to a political leader who faces corruption and morally challenging issues of much greater magnitude which threaten to incur extreme consequences, that something as seemingly "simple" as this case requires just a brush off the shoulder, rather than invest any deeper thought. Rigid straightforwardness without the ability to be diplomatic and smart enough to tweak and prune a few things and people along the way, seems a rather unsuccessful and unrealistic strategy for a PM to employ. Therefore, if the PM did consider to take the money in this case, I guess I can be tolerant and understanding of the decision from a practical standpoint, since the consequences are not too severe. But if he were to repeat this too often, I wouldn't be able to excuse his decision, for he starts to jeopardize the moral sanctity of the society, which is far more difficult to re-establish than provide proper infrastructure to a developing nation.


SecondSight said...

Isn't the goodness of the deed enough to warrant the honor somewhat? I mean in the simpler sense that even without the demand itself, knighting the man could be justified because of the good work that he did.
Awards like this are meant to honor deeds, not intent (And I will not mention the Nobel here ;)).
I think it would only really come into question if the businessman (or someone else) tried to hold people hostage/ commit other terrorist acts and promised to desist in exchange for knighthood.

Neeraja said...

That's a very positive and interesting perspective! I know such awards are mostly honored for a single successful experiment, book etc... but a single good deed of throwing away money with a nonchalant gesture, somehow doesn't merit an award exemplifying an honorable life lived. Sort of like washing away sins with a single good deed. But of course, the award is beyond balancing the Karma equation :)