On Philosophy

July 12, 2006

On Corruption

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:24 am

What is corruption? People who believe in corruption believe that exposing a person to evil will make them evil. This could be taken to mean a lot of different things, so before we jump into this topic let me clarify exactly the kind of corruption that I will be discussing here. I am not talking about a person who is exposed to traumatic events, resulting in psychological problems. It is true that their actions may subsequently be “evil”, but I think we can all agree that the person is not truly evil in this case, they simply need help. I am also not talking about people who are raised without good role models. Although they may grow up to be “evil” people, it was not the evil they were exposed to that caused them to act in this way, but more of a lack of positive influences, which are required for the possibility of good behavior.

Although the belief in corruption may seem archaic or silly there are many people who act as though it was a real possibility. For example some people refuse to see TV or movies that contain swearing. This is not because they dislike swearing, if that were the case they would occasionally make exceptions for a movie that otherwise promised to be excellent (just as we will all occasionally go to see a movie that contains an actor whose performances we dislike). No, they seem to have a fear that if they expose themselves to others acting evilly that they will begin to act the same way (and thus suffer some sort of eternal torment, for I have most often observed these behaviors in the strongly religious).

Are their fears warranted? We know that being exposed to a phenomenon repeatedly will desensitize a person to it (they will no longer have an emotional reaction to it, or at least a much smaller one than they had initially). However desensitization by itself will not cause a person to act badly. For example I don’t have a strong emotional reaction (or really any emotional reaction) to theft, but I never find myself inclined to steal, since don’t believe it to be the right thing to do. As far as I can determine there are only two other possibilities. One is that they secretly desire to perform the “evil” action and that it is their revulsion of it that prevents them from acting on their desire. Thus they fear that if they became desensitized they might actually start acting evilly. If this is really the case I think it reflects badly on the person who fears corruption, and they need to reflect closely on their morality. If they really have a reason to do good instead of evil then there is no real danger that they will act evilly, even if they desire to do so, because of the aforementioned reason. If they have no reason to do the right thing, or worry that their reason may be overcome by their desires, it would seem better to seek psychological help rather than to constantly worry about becoming desensitized to evil.

There is of course another possibility why people might worry about corruption, that reflects less negatively on the individual. Perhaps they suppose that watching evil acts in conjunction with something they find enjoyable, for example a good movie in which the characters swear, will cause them to associate the “evil” with the pleasure they find in its context, and thus become more inclined to act evilly (a kind of conditioning effect). I find it unlikely that this conditioning effect could occur in real life situations, because our natural aversion to that which we judge to be wrong will remove any pleasure from the situation. However what about fictional evils? We can find pleasure in fictional works where evil occurs, because we know it is not real evil. Even so, I would argue that this wouldn’t condition us to like real evil, only to like fictional evil. (For example I tend to prefer books where the authors use the death of a character to move the plot along, but I am not tempted to kill my friends.) Of course if one isn’t able to tell the difference between fiction and reality then there is a possibility that these fictional evils could give rise to an inclination to do real evil, however every healthy adult can make this distinction. Perhaps those who cannot should be sheltered from such things (such as children), but once again this cannot justify the behavior of healthy adults who act as though they fear corruption.

So if corruption isn’t real where does the belief in it come from? I think it arises from ill-conceived analogies between evil and physical substances. For example if you compare evil to something like mud you might be afraid that being around something evil might cause the evil to rub off on you, just as handling muddy things will make you dirty. Evil is also often compared to disease (especially in primitive religions, which often thought that disease was a manifestation of evil), and if you believe in this analogy you might think that being around evil could cause you to “catch” it. It shouldn’t be surprising that such analogies lead to bad conclusions, since evil is an abstraction about the physical, much more like math than mud or sickness. You wouldn’t think that being exposed to differentiation would make you more differentiable, and so you shouldn’t think that being exposed to evil would make you evil.



  1. I find this argument highly unconvincing. I started swearing around the same time that I started hanging around people who swear a lot and watching media that involves a lot of swearing. If I had kept hanging out with the same old people and watching the same kinds of media, it’s unlikely that I would have spontaneously developed Tourette’s.

    People’s speech copies what they hear. That’s a basic law of linguistics. Move to Japan, and you’ll start using some Japanese. Hang around swearing, and you’ll at least start swearing in your head. Now, you may not start swearing aloud if you have good self-control, but at the very least, you’ve made it easier for you to swear when you’re under stress and don’t feel like following all the rules. It’s perfectly understandable for those who don’t want to swear to limit their expose to swearing.

    Watching stealing or murdering is a completely different thing, because those actions aren’t the kinds of things that we automatically copy in our heads, but for words, the process is a part of human nature.

    Comment by Carl — July 14, 2006 @ 8:59 pm

  2. I would accept that argument only if you could cite references to psychological research to support it.

    Comment by Peter — July 14, 2006 @ 9:08 pm

  3. And I’m not sure it would matter even if it was true, because it would simply demonstrate that you didn’t have good reason not to swear, which implies that your lack of swearing was not part of your moral charachter to begin with, and simply an accident. In that case you are not actually a better person for a lack of swearing. Of course it is unlikely that swearing is part of moral charachter at all.

    Comment by Peter — July 14, 2006 @ 9:10 pm

  4. “And I’m not sure it would matter even if it was true, because it would simply demonstrate that you didn’t have good reason not to swear…”

    e.g., did not have a wide vocabularity from which to draw in your attempt to express ‘feelings.’

    Comment by meleephd — July 16, 2006 @ 9:16 am

  5. I do not find this article very convincing, for it is incorrect in some truths that are meant to enlighten us on the “truth”- the truly religious Christians are actually called upon to be around the corrupt- Zacchaeus the tax collector, for example. Therefore, the really religious do not shy away from this, but rather try to teach and help, confident enough in their faith not to succumb.
    And I agree, swearing isn’t a moral facet, it is a habit that people keep up to shock others, without having a more varied vocabulary- It actually would be loads more shocking if someone used the words “gall-livered strumpet” in an argument, not that that’s very nice either. ;P

    Comment by Denise — November 30, 2006 @ 8:09 pm

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