Stephen H. Unger Computer Science Department Columbia University

Published in: Science and Engineering Ethics. Vol. 4, No. 4, 1998, pp. 287-290.

Based on a presentation made at the "Ethics for Science and Engineering Based International Industries" Conference, Durham, NC, Sept. 14-17, 1997.


Some argue that individuals and organizations doing business in countries where corruption is prevalent should not be expected to adhere to strict standards of ethical practice. The basis for such arguments is faulty. Ethics, unlike etiquette, has a universal basis; it is fundamentally the same all over the world. Even in a practical sense, there are long range advantages to be gained by ethical behavior in these situations. Engineering employees of companies operating in areas where corruption is common are sometimes forced to make very difficult decisions.

The focus in this paper is on the ethical aspects of the problem. Laws applying to companies doing business abroad, for example the US Corrupt Practices Act, are not discussed.

1. Defining the Problem The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Ethics Code clearly states that involvement in bribery is unacceptable behavior for an engineer. This seems to be a simple, non-controversial, provision, and it is fully consistent with older engineering ethics codes. Yet it is one of the most disputed parts of the code. Why? The argument made is that, in various parts of the world, activities that people in the United States would call bribery, are routine business practices. If those subjected to American standards of ethics and law are prohibited from engaging in these practices, then, the argument goes, they will be significantly handicapped in the market place.

Before dealing with the fundamental issues raised by this argument and its implications, I will first address the problem of defining bribery. The dictionary definition of a bribe is a payment to induce somebody to do something that is wrong, or illegal, or that which the bribee does not wish to do. Listing a few examples may help clarify the subject.

1. Paying a government inspector to overlook a defect in the wiring of a building.

2. Paying a company purchasing agent to order parts from a particular vendor.

3. Offering a child a piece of candy as a reward for finishing his dinner.

Item 3 may be ignored as illustrating a meaning irrelevant to the present discussion. Few would deny that behavior along the lines of item 1 is unacceptable. Let us examine behavior typified by item 2, which is where the disagreements arise.

One issue is that of magnitude. Suppose a sales engineer for a vendor, while discussing his product with a purchasing agent over dinner, picks up the check. Should this be considered as a bribe? There are usually well understood rules, sometimes with the force of law, that indicate the point at which a gift becomes a bribe. Local customs are often relevant in determining this boundary.

Particularly when dealing with organizations (governmental or private) in other countries, it is common to engage local agents to assist in making contacts, in negotiating contracts, and in clarifying local laws and customs. Such agents may be paid fixed fees or percentages of the amounts involved in the contracts. In many, perhaps most cases, the use of such agents is a legitimate business practice. But agents are also used as mechanisms to pay bribes. The agent may charge a fee for services rendered and then distributes bribes to obtain the contracts under acceptable terms. Those employing the agent can disclaim any responsibility for the actions of the agent. Distinguishing between the legitimate and illegitimate use of agents is, at least in principle, not difficult.

In some countries, employees of both government and private industry who deal with the general public or with organizations seeking various services, are not paid adequate salaries. It is expected that their salaries will be incremented by side payments, sometimes called "grease", made by those using their services. This practice is similar to tipping. It is different from bribing in that the payments are made, not to induce people to do something wrong, but rather to get them to do what they are supposed to do. In some situations, for example where grease payments are necessary to get customs officials to release legitimate shipments into a country, the situation takes on the flavor of extortion. In effect, the shipper is threatened with costly artificial delays unless grease is paid. It does not seem reasonable to charge those making such payments with bribery. At worst they may be criticized for encouraging an improper practice by yielding to pressure.

Another aspect of these situations is secrecy. When payments are made in secret, this is a strong, if not infallible, indicator that they are improper.

In summary, from the point of view of engineering ethics, bribery is the act of making payments, usually secretly, intended to induce the recipient to act in a manner that is illegal or favorable to the payer, at the expense of the recipient's employer, of the payer's competitors, or of other parties, including the general public.

2. The "When in Rome" Argument As mentioned above, there are parts of the world where bribery is a common practice. Some argue that this should be considered as a cultural difference that should be respected. Those doing business in such places, goes this argument, should be expected to participate in bribery as appropriate and not be handicapped by being held to ethical standards that are not locally valid. Furthermore, engineers who are nationals of countries in this category should not be expected to adhere, while practicing in their own countries, to ethical practices associated with a different culture.

This position is based on the assumption that ethics is relative to location, and that it would be arrogant to rank the customs of one area of the world over those of another. In effect, it equates ethics with etiquette, or perhaps fashion. But, can the same act violate basic ethical principles in one place and be consonant with them somewhere else? Such values as respect for human life and welfare, fair play, truth, and openness, which are the basis for ethics in general and for engineering ethics in particular, are of fundamental importance because they are critical to human society. To the extent that they are violated, cooperation among people becomes increasingly difficult, and human life itself becomes burdensome. This is true universally. It is not a matter of cultural bias, and people throughout the world tend to agree about the basics of ethics. (An excellent discussion of the general issue of relativism in ethics can be found in [Martin-Schinzinger, pp 252-256]).

With respect to the issue of bribery in particular, it is true that in many countries it is quite widespread. But even in these countries it is not considered to be a desirable practice, but rather a problem. The fact that a harmful practice is prevalent does not mean that it is acceptable or that efforts should not be made to eradicate it. In all of these countries, there are people struggling to accomplish this. Their efforts are impeded by the fact that the principal bribers are often foreign companies competing against one another for contracts.

It would be naive to believe that bribery and corruption are not serious problems in advanced industrial countries such as the US. Consider the massive corruption involved in military procurement in the US where, for example, the Air Force paid thousands of dollars each for Allen wrenches priced in hardware stores at less than a dollar, and over $7000 each for coffee pots [Fitzgerald]. Perhaps even more important is dependency of members of the US congress on those able to make huge campaign contributions.

3. How Costly is Ethical Behavior? Where giving bribes is a common practice in procuring contracts, a company that does not offer bribes will clearly be at a disadvantage, at least in the short term. It is likely to lose out to less scrupulous competitors in the battle for contracts. Suppose that such a company enunciates its policy clearly, and publicly calls attention to the corrupt practices of its competitors. While this would probably be counterproductive in the short run, the result may be to build up good will among the forces in the country that are fighting against corruption, Should those forces prevail, then the honest company is likely to be rewarded. In the worst case, it may be necessary to recognize that there are times when one must choose between immediate self-interest and ethical behavior. Where corruption is so rampant that it is not possible to do business in an honest manner, then perhaps the most appropriate response is simply to refrain from doing business in that country. If this policy were widely adopted, then strong pressure for reform would be a likely outcome.

The situation of individual engineers employed by companies doing business in countries where bribery is rampant can be very difficult. If their employers are among those engaged in corrupt practices, they may be faced with agonizing dilemmas. Participating in acts of bribery may be abhorrent to them on moral grounds and may expose them to risks of legal prosecution and/or censure by their professional societies. Refusing to participate may jeopardize their careers within their companies. This is a situation where support from their engineering societies could be of great value.

REFERENCES Fitzgerald, A. Ernest, "The Pentagonists", Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Martin, Mike W. and Roland Schinzinger, "Ethics in Engineering", Second Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1989. ......................