The Jewish Ethicist: Grease or Graft
Can I pay off a crooked official to get him to do his job?
Q. I support a charitable organization in a somewhat backward developing country. A local official warned me that any donations are likely to be "skimmed" by the administrators. I'm thinking of offering this official a small payment to help keep an eye on the crooked administration, but I wonder if this kind of bribe is ethical.
A. This situation presents a troubling ethical dilemma. On the one hand, we know that bribery is improper. On the other hand, the goal of protecting charity donations seems most worthy. We need to dig beneath the superficial truisms and determine exactly where the ethical problem with bribery lies.
The Torah tells us: "Don't take bribes, for bribes blind the sighted and distort the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8). The verse doesn't tell us not to take bribes to distort justice -- it is obvious that this is forbidden. Rather, the Torah informs us that bribes are certain to affect our judgment in subtle ways, so that even the words of the righteous are distorted. A judge may not accept bribes even to make a judgment that he is convinced he would reach anyway.
Where does the Torah forbid giving bribes? This prohibition is a corollary of the prohibition on receiving bribes, since the Torah forbids us to cause others to transgress. The commandment "Don't place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14) includes the problem of creating a spiritual obstacle to someone who is blind to the ethical course of action.
Therefore, it is improper to give an inducement for a person to neglect or distort his professional responsibility. This includes various kinds of kickbacks meant to induce buyers to act against the interest of the employer, as we discussed in a previous column
What happens if we give someone an inducement to fulfill his professional responsibility? Evidently this doesn't create a "stumbling block," so it should be permissible.
Even so, immense care is needed before giving a bribe for someone even to do something proper. First of all, we need to carefully examine our own motives to see if we are truly impartial. Perhaps we are really seeking some kind of unfair favoritism. Another problem is that making these payments perpetuates the corrupt system whereby people only do their job if they are given inducements.
Careful thought is needed to see if your situation meets all these criteria. If it would be appropriate for this official to be preventing the kind of "skimming" you describe as part of his job, and local ethical norms are so backward that your silent protest by refusing to pay a bribe is really of no relevance, it may be ethically justified to make a payment, especially for such an important objective. Ideally, a way would be found to encourage this official to keep an eye on all contributions, to avoid creating unfair favoritism.
It is interesting that the American Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) makes a similar distinction, forbidding bribes but permitting "grease" payments which are given to facilitate performance of a routine government action -- one which the official is supposed to be doing anyway.
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