The relational dimension of political corruption

Emanuela Ceva is Professor of Political Theory at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva, where she is also a member of the Swiss Centre in Affective Sciences. She specializes in political philosophy with a particular interest in institutional theory as concerns issues of justice, democracy, corruption, trust, and the political role of moral emotions.  She has held visiting fellowships, among others, at the universities of Oxford, St. Andrews, Montréal, Hitotsubashi in Tokyo, KU Leuven, and Harvard. In 2018, she received a Fulbright Scholarship in philosophy. She has published articles in such journals as the Journal of Political Philosophy, Social Philosophy & Policy, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Philosophy Compass. Her most recent book (co-authored with Maria Paola Ferretti) is Political Corruption. The Internal Enemy of Public Institutions (Oxford University Press).


The interview was conducted by Luc Foisneau and filmed by the Direction de l'Image et du Son at the EHESS (96 boulevard Raspail), in Paris the 18th April 2017. 

Edited by Serge Blerald

Luc Foisneau : What is the input of your on-going project on whistleblowing?

Emanuela Ceva : My research on this topic got started in 2016 within the framework of a collaborative research project on the ethics of whistleblowing financed by the European Commission Internal Security Fund. Within that project, called “A change of Direction. Fostering Whistleblowing in the Fight Against Corruption”1 my research has engaged with the question of whether the members of an organization have a moral duty to blow the whistle on wrongdoings allegedly occurring within their organization2. In particular, the research focused on a specific type of organizational wrongdoing within public institutions: political corruption, understood as an unaccountable use of a power of office3. The interesting feature of that project is that it was a mixed project involving both a research and an advocacy component. The network involved political philosophers and activists campaigning for the protection of the rights of whistleblowers worldwide. The basic idea of the project was to develop a new understanding and a justification of whistleblowing as a part of an anticorruption strategy grounded in a public ethics of office accountability. In this sense, this research group has been the first to address issues of political corruption from a combined philosophical and practical perspective, following the renewal of the studies in this field initiated at Harvard at the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics,4 where a novel idea of institutional corruption has been developed following the lead of Lawrence Lessig5 and Dennis Thompson6. Crucial to the idea of institutional corruption is that we can have corrupt institutional mechanisms even when no individual corrupt actions occur. The crucial example is that of private electoral campaign financing in the USA7. The system is corrupt, in this view, because it makes the institution of democratic elections dependent on the influence of private interests, even if, say, no candidate gets any bribe. The idea of political corruption I have developed in my own research and with Maria Paola Ferretti8 is different because it rejects the idea that public institutions may be corrupt even if none of their members act in a corrupt way. Because institutions are systems of interrelated rule-governed roles occupied by human persons, there is no institutional action outside the interrelated action of the officeholders. Therefore, to understand how a public institution can be corrupt, and why that corruption is wrong, we need to analyze the conduct of officeholders and the uses they make of their power of office. This is the key idea Ferretti and I have recently defended in a book where we present political corruption as “an internal enemy of public institutions”9. Surely, the problem of private electoral campaign financing is not the existence of that mechanism per se, but the network of corrupt relations of clientelism and favoritism it creates and that conditions institutional action. My interest in whistleblowing,10 as argued in works co-authored with Michele Bocchiola,11 concerns the role of this practice as an instrument through which officeholders may call on each other to answer for the uses they make of their powers of office. In this sense, I view whistleblowing not primarily as an individual act of resistance against an injustice, but as a practice that every organization must regulate and implement to address such structural injustices as political corruption.

Luc FoisneauWhy do you say that political corruption is an injustice, and what kind of injustice is it?

Emanuela Ceva : Most people share the intuition that the corruption of public officials and institutions is wrong, but the intuition is not quite pondered. Many seem to be content with pointing at the negative economic and social costs that political corruption produces, e.g., in terms of inefficiencies in the provision of public services, or because it is unlawful. However, sometimes the negative consequences of political corruption are not obvious, e.g., when bribes allow the realization of public infrastructures in dysfunctional systems. Moreover, it is clear that some forms of corruption involve no illegal but morally questionable behavior, e.g., in cases of familism. Hence I have asked myself if there is a sense in which we can consider political corruption as a distinctive kind of moral wrong, in the form of an injustice, that the state has a duty to counteract.


Of course, certain specific instances of political corruption may be considered unjust because they entail the violation of someone’s specific subjective rights. For example, cases of nepotism in the public sector may violate equal employment opportunities of people when certain candidates are favored against other on the basis of some kind of familiar relation to the public official that is called to appoint them. From a philosophical point of view, this response is quite disappointing, though, because it leaves the normative assessment of political corruption to a case by case consideration of each instance of this practice. Moreover, imagine that the case of nepotism in question occurs in the context of a procedure where only one candidate has applied. Strictly speaking no else’s right is implicated. Would we have to say that the officeholder’s use of her power of appointment to promote a familistic agenda was not wrong qua corrupt at all?


In my work, I show that we should resist this conclusion because there is always a sense in which political corruption is unjust independently of its consequences12. The injustice of political corruption is interactive13 and consists in the violation of the duty of office accountability that the officeholders owe to each other when they act in their institutional capacity. When officeholders act in their institutional capacity, they exercise some normative powers – in the form of rights and duties – they only have by virtue of their occupying an institutional role. The public official in our example was not born with the power to appoint people to an office; she has that power only because she occupies an institutional role. Because institutional roles are interrelated the exercise of each officeholder’s rights and duties structurally depends on the exercise of the others. Each institution thus rests on a normative order of right-duty relations which, to function, requires all officeholders to act in keeping with the terms of their power of office mandate. Officeholders have, therefore, the mutual authority to demand each other to account for the use they make of their powers of office and a duty to make themselves accountable in such a way. By using her power of appointment to pursue a familistic agenda, the public official makes a use of her power of office that is incoherent with the terms of her mandate. This condition constitutes an alteration of the logic of office accountability that ought to regulate the interaction between the officeholders in a public institution and it is, therefore, inherently interactively unjust. To see this point is important to understand the wrongness of political corruption in general and also to devise policies that are capable of addressing the specific kind of wrong in which this form of corruption consists.

Luc Foisneau : What makes it so difficult, sometimes, to see that there is political corruption going on?

Emanuela Ceva : There are certain issues of political corruption that are fairly easy to identify because they involve law breaking, bribery for instance, for which we have legal instruments to deal with. But there are some other salient cases of political corruption which are more difficult to identify because they do not involve any kind of law breaking. Clientelism or nepotism are examples of corrupt practices, according to the account of political corruption I have just presented, although they are not generally ruled out by law in many legal systems. To see and address these cases of political corruption is necessary to mobilize an institution’s internal resources of self-correction in order to promote a public ethics of office accountability within it. To this end, it is crucial to call directly on the officeholders and have them engaging in good faith in such practices of institutional answerability as whistleblowing14.


This call on officeholders’ responsibility is important to make cases of political corruption emerge, which are often covert or, at any rate, difficult to detect from an external point of view. What is typical of cases of political corruption is that even when they are not purposefully hidden, when they become known to the public, those who perpetrated them tend to redescribe their conduct in terms perceived to be more widely acceptable as grounds for public action. For example, bribes become gifts; nepotism is translated into terms of personal trust or even care for family relations. Recently, such operation has prominently involved Ivanka Trump’s appointment as a diplomat and an advisor to her father, Donald, when he was President in office of the USA. The White House officially described Ms. Trump’s emerging role as voluntary work “for the good of the country,” thus denying any association with nepotism and corruption15. Because these operations are typical of political corruption, we can immediately see the importance of calling officeholders to answer for their action as the key to any anticorruption institutional action. Anticorruption may not be limited to the punishment of corrupt individuals who violate some positive law; it must also and crucially embody a commitment to sustaining a public ethics of office accountability.

Luc Foisneau : Are there different forms of corruption according to different political regimes, and why is it important to be able to make this kind of distinction?

Emanuela Ceva : Yes, but I think they are different species of a common genus. In my research, I have argued that political corruption always has a core which consists in an unaccountable use of a power of office. Naturally, standards of accountability may change across political regimes and are specific of different power mandates within different types of institutions. Also the agents to whom officeholders are accountable may vary across institutional systems and, in a democracy, they also include citizens. Also, the threshold of social tolerability of certain forms of political corruption varies greatly across different political cultures. But the challenge that I have tried to take on with my research is to identify a shared common core that may offer a compass to navigate the complexities of political corruption and engage with this enemy of public institutions across contexts.

Luc Foisneau : What kind of anticorruption policy would you recommend to government officials?

Emanuela Ceva : One of the most exciting things of doing philosophical research on such concrete political issues as corruption is to see a very tangible sense in which conceptual analysis and normative theory can change the way in which we do policies. The conceptual clarification of what political corruption is and the normative engagement with the kind of wrongness it implies have a direct impact on the kind of anticorruption policies that should be in place. So, on the basis of my understanding of political corruption as an unaccountable use of a power office, the most direct implication is that anticorruption policies must be capable of identifying corrupted exercises of office power and bringing them to the fore. The discussion of whistleblowing is relevant from this of view. Much of the current discussion of whistleblowing concerns the action of individuals who disclose (notably to the press16) classified information about some organizational wrongdoing. Edward Snowden is the first example that comes to everyone’s mind. Snowden was a CIA and NSA computer analyst who has famously disclosed to the Guardian17 and the Washington Post18 classified information about the mass surveillance programs established by the UK and US governments. But such individual acts of resistance against wrongdoing are only the tip of the iceberg of what whistleblowing19 is about, and how it may contribute to unveiling corrupt uses of office powers in an institution. A large part of my research has been devoted to presenting whistleblowing also as an organizational practice20 that any institution ought to implement and regulate to make officeholders engage in practices of mutual answerability in the face of (suspected) deficits of office accountability. If we understand whistleblowing within an ethics of office accountability, we can immediately see how the current policies addressing it are not fully adequate as they mainly concern the protection of individuals who act against the law or some other professional duty. My proposed perspective calls for a new approach, less emergency-driven and more structural, to a regulation of whistleblowing as a standard answerability measure to counteract such institutional dysfunctions as political corruption.

Unfold notes and references
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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, Is Whistleblowing a Duty?, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019, [online].

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Emanuela Ceva, Maria Paola Ferretti, “Political corruption”,  Philosophy Compass, vol. 12, no 12, 2017, [online].

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See Lawrence Lessig, “Republic, Lost”, Talks at Google, YouTube Video, 57:18, November 16, 2011, [online]

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Emanuela Ceva, Maria Paola Ferretti, Political Corruption: the Internal Enemy of Public Institutions, New York, Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021, [online].

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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, “Theories of Whistleblowing”, Philosophy Compass, vol. 15, no 1, 2020, [online].

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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, Is Whistleblowing a Duty?, Cambridge, Polity, 2019, [online].

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Emanuela Ceva, “Political corruption as a relational injustice”, Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 35, n2, p. 118-137, 2018, [online]. 

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Emanuela Ceva, Interactive Justice. A proceduralist approach to value conflict in politics, New York, Routledge, 2016, [online].

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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, “Personal Trust, Public Accountability, and the Justification of Whistleblowing”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 27, no 2, p. 187-206, 2019, [online]. 

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Maya Oppenheim, “Ivanka Trump new White House job not nepotism because she isn’t being paid, says Donald Trump surrogate”, Independent, March 31, 2017, [online]. 

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Emanuela Ceva, Dorota Mokrosinska, “Failing Institutions, Whistle‐Blowing, and the Role of the News Media”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 2020, [online].

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“The NSA Files”, The Guardian, [online]. 

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Rick Noack, “Edward Snowden revelations”, The Washington Post, October 6, 2016, [online]. 

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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, “Theories of Whistleblowing”, Philosophy Compass, vol. 15, no 1, 2020, [online]. 

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Emanuela Ceva, Michele Bocchiola, Is Whistleblowing a Duty?, Cambridge, Polity, 2019 [online].