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Doing bad for good

by Matthew Beard
24 November 2016
Serving a good cause? Great. But not at all costs. Matthew Beard explores one reason why good people do bad things.

You would think there’d be nobody more concerned with upholding the law than police officers, wouldn’t you? It would be reasonable to think charities aimed at improving the world would take good care of their staff and volunteers, wouldn’t it?

You couldn’t be blamed for thinking so, but ironically, there is a theory that organisations committed to a strong and inspiring moral purpose might actually lead employees to feel justified in breaking rules, abusing their role or violating peoples’ basic rights.

The theory revolves around something called “noble cause corruption”. This is when unethical, illegal or abusive methods are used to achieve a particular cause or organisation’s goals. So you do wrong in order to get the job done and achieve the best possible result, not just for yourself or your organisation, but for a common set of ethical standards.

The topic is most commonly discussed in policing, a field in which Australian philosopher Seumas Miller is one of the leading global voices. He gives the example of a young police officer named Joe. Joe works with a fellow detective, Mick, who is also his brother-in-law. One day he arrives at church to speak with his priest about a criminal he and Mick have just arrested and charged:

Father - he has got a mile of form, including getting kids hooked on drugs, physical and sexual assault on minors, and more. Anyway, surveillance informed Mick that the drug dealer had just made a buy. As me and Mick approached the drug dealer’s penthouse flat, we noticed a parcel come flying out the window of the flat onto the street. It was full of heroin.

The drug dealer was in the house, but we found no drugs inside. Mick thought it would be more of a sure thing if we found the evidence in the flat rather than on the street – especially given the number of windows in the building. The defence would find it more difficult to deny possession. Last night Mick tells me that he was interviewed and signed a statement that we both found the parcel of heroin under the sink in the flat. He said all I had to do was to go along with the story in court and everything will be sweet, no worries. What should I do Father? Perjury is a serious criminal offence.

Interestingly, Miller believes Mick demonstrates noble cause corruption but Joe does not – even if he does commit perjury, because corruption requires a number of criteria to be met:
  1. Corrupt actions aren’t one-offs. They’re a product of a disposition to act in a certain way – for example, to break the rules when they prove unhelpful.
  2. Corrupt actions are performed in response to ongoing situations – poor salary, frustration at the law’s impotency and so on…
  3. The corruption tends to be unthinking on some level – it is a product of habit or social convention rather than conscious choice.
This is why it’s easier to see Mick’s actions as more corrupt than Joe’s. Joe takes the time to consider what he should do, talking it over and reflecting with his priest. The impression Mick gives is of someone taking the ‘easy way out’ of the situation, not because it’s the right thing to do in consequentialist terms, but because it’s the way he’s always operated with regard to the rules – they don’t matter once they get in the way.

There may still be some people who are comfortable with noble cause corruption – especially in high stakes situations. Rules are meant to be broken, right? To these people, Miller would point out research suggests those who engage in noble cause corruption are more likely to also engage in more garden variety kinds of corruption motivated by self-interest. If he’s right, this would suggest restraining the habit to disregard the rules to high stakes situations is easier said than done.

The second challenge posed by noble cause corruption is to the integrity of the profession as a whole. The United States are currently dealing with a growing crisis of trust in their police force following a suite of shootings of black Americans by white police officers. Although these might not be examples of ‘noble cause corruption’, they reveal how quickly even the appearance of bad behaviour can erode trust in a crucial social organisation like the police.

If you need to break a few eggs to make your omelette, you might be better off eating something else. 

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