Howard Richards - TRANSCEND Media Service

16 Jul 2020 – This is a note whose purpose is to get the reader interested in theory, by showing that theory matters for practice.

We are not trying to sell you our theory, but we do have a theory. It says that modern western civilization is no longer viable. It says that humanity needs to work together to solve its physical problems drawing on ethics that are not modern, not western, and in some cases have never existed anywhere and will need to be constructed in the future. We call our theory ´unbounded´ and ´realist. ´

But a theory will not work for you unless you think It out for yourself. If you are normal, you need conversations. You need to try out your ideas on friends. But some people are not normal in this respect. A few people think long long thoughts by themselves and come up with great insights and inventions.

We are not trying to sell our particular plans for ending poverty or global warming either. We have given examples to show that not everything is hopeless. Nevertheless, for any major problem the honest answer to the question What is the solution? is We don´t know. The eventual solution, if there is one, will probably be the sum of many partial solutions. We believe that in order to evaluate the facts and the options here and now, wherever is here and whenever being now, and to reach a consensus with your team on what is most likely to work, one needs a critical theoretical background. Our non-viable civilization is trapped in false theories that cement in place dysfunctional social structures.

We picked corruption for the title of this note because it is in the news, and because corruption perennially frustrates well planned and rational solutions to any and every problem. It has a narrow definition: embezzlement of public funds or taking bribes by public officials; but in ordinary speech it tends to acquire a broader meaning. Its meaning expands to include every sector and to include everything crooked and rotten. Thus our title serves both as a specific topic that has been scientifically studied and as a general symbol of evil – i.e. a symbol

  1. of hurting others and not caring, in extreme cases enjoying it; and
  2.  of breaking the rules that organize society whenever you can get away with it. (Research has shown that people with these two characteristics, i.e. with low levels of moral development, also tend to have another:
  3. They are in many cases glib talkers, quick to claim they have been wronged, that they are the ones who are the victims who are owed something.)(1)

We use the narrow definition, but then like the rest of the world let its meaning spill over to refer to evil in general.

But most of all, summing up practical conclusions from fighting poverty, defending nature, surviving the pandemic, ending racism, and building cultures of integrity we are led to suggest that everyone should follow a spiritual path. I (Howard) picked up the phrase when I was practicing law in California. David Cooper was a better lawyer than I was, and I always felt it was an honour I did not deserve when he was out of town and I appeared for him representing his clients in court while he was gone. One day David said to me, ´my wife and I are going to be out of town for a few days following our spiritual path. ´ The phrase stuck with me. More on this later.

The Scientific Study of Corruption

Ron Fisman and Miriam Golden, two of today’s leading experts in the study of corruption describe their approach and that of most of their colleagues in their field in the following words,

Everything in life involves trade-offs. For most bribe taking officials, the main cost of corruption is the possibility of getting caught and punished. In thinking about corruption as a cost-benefit trade-off researchers are operating in the broader tradition first pioneered by Nobel laureate Gary Becker(2) who applied economic analysis to many aspects of daily life: marriage, addiction, and –most important for our purposes—crime. In his own telling, Becker started thinking about the trade-offs would-be criminals faced when he found himself in search of a parking spot near Columbia University where he taught early in his career. As he remembered to a newspaper reporter shortly before his death in 2014, ´the question was shall I park closer in a spot that was illegal, or shall I park in a spot that was somewhat farther away? So I had to make calculations: what was the likelihood that I´d be caught if I parked it down the street, versus the time, the money that would be lost by parking it farther away? We all make these kinds of trade-offs in breaking rules –whether to cross against a traffic light or drive a little above the speed limit, for example. Civil servants confront them in deciding whether and how much to break the law to benefit from bribery.´(3)

I offer the fact that today mainstream social scientists routinely apply methodologies making the ontological assumptions of Gary Becker´s economic way of looking at life as evidence for the thesis that the present complex of crises afflicting South Africa and the world is a crisis of western modernity. It is also a fact that the data concerning corruption that mainstream researchers gather tend to confirm their theories. Therefore, they also tend to confirm the individualistic assumptions à la Becker of their methodologies. I offer these facts too as further evidence for the same thesis. As we have been looking at mass unemployment, economics vs. ecology, which societies do worse and which do better vs. the coronavirus, and Martin Luther King´s ideal of beloved community vs. Donald Trump´s ideal of law and order, we have been looking at the dominant form of contemporary society. Everybody asks ´What´s in it for me? ´ I decide what to do by calculating my costs and my benefits. It is not a sustainable or desirable kind of society.

Empirical studies of corruption guided by Becker´s assumptions tend to show that a corrupt society is the kind of society we have. But, as Fisman and Golden acknowledge, it is not all we have. There are many exceptions where the economic way of thinking does not prevail. Feminist scholars have often led the way in studying them. (4)

The reason why Becker´s economic way of thinking is an academic success is that to a large extent, the world is in fact corrupt. It is corrupt in the narrow sense that public officials take bribes and embezzle public funds. And in the broader sense that the private sector also all too often breaks rules designed to serve the common good, and forgets moral obligations, when the benefits of vice exceed the costs of virtue. A common result of corruption is that well thought out plans to do good, even when well-funded, often come to nothing.

Making the Impossible Possible

If you think about it, I think you will agree that as the world is now organized, it is essentially impossible to stop corruption, for at least two solid reasons. The first is poverty. One solid result of corruption research is that corruption goes with poverty. You can confirm this for yourself by looking at any of the rankings of countries from least corrupt to most corrupt published by Transparency International. The ranking from least corrupt to most corrupt is similar to a ranking from richest to poorest. Cultures of corruption have been deeply entrenched for many generations in places where a police officer can survive on a tiny salary on only because the badge is a license to take bribes. (See Note Three)

The second reason why it is now impossible to stop corruption is that individuals, throughout history and especially now when money is the measure of all things, are tempted to sin all by themselves and are quite capable of it. Frequently the press reports ingenious scams pulled off by high income crooks; sometimes their crimes are the sources of their wealth. It happens that the human being is an animal with secret thoughts. Other people do not know what evils lurk unseen in the invisible caverns deep in the human soul. There used to be a clear remedy for the invisibility of idiosyncratic violent ruminations: Nobody knew. But God knew. You can hide your evil thoughts from humans but not from a God who knows the secrets of hearts and kidneys.(5) This remedy appears to be increasingly ineffective in the mainstream society that is in deep trouble today.(6)

But consider non-modern and non-western cultures. Unbind your mind. Brainstorm. Consider that the number of ways to solve any problem is limitless. Many of them lie forgotten in the past and many will be invented in the future.

Consider Plato and Aristotle. Their books on ethics and politics and education are all about how to form good citizens. Aristotle says that a well-educated person has formed good habits that result in a good character; a well-educated child becomes an adult who finds pleasure in virtue and finds no pleasure in vice; and, moreover –surprise, surprise– finds happiness. If you directly seek happiness you will not find it; but if you seek to be a good person, happiness will find you. Or take Plato. Plato too starts early. Little kids like to run around and make noise. Therefore, their first education should be dancing and singing. The purpose of teaching them dances and songs is to start early bringing order to their souls.

Many traditional people of Africa started even earlier. Before the baby was even born the mother composed a song for the unborn child in her womb. At birth, the grandparents were the first to hold the new-born, because the new-born had just arrived from the spirit world where the grandparents are about to go.

Education and upbringing, ceremonies and relationships, can be designed to form a society where there would not be anybody who thought only of benefits and costs to himself, not caring about others; there would not be anybody whose only question about the customs of the community was whether he or she could get away with breaking them. This is not an imaginary example. Before 1600 traditional cultures governed southern Africa. It was individualism that was unknown.

Diverse spiritual paths explore in diverse ways the issues of the inner secret life, the life unseen by strangers who pass you on the sidewalk or in the parking lot. They range from Hindu practices thousands of years old, to the latest therapy groups for recovering addicts and for victims and/or perpetrators of sexual abuse, inspired by up to the minute research. They all do inner work cleansing the soul step by step; they all bring a sense of connection with something larger than oneself; they all make virtues stronger and vices weaker. Does it not seem likely that cultures where it would be expected that everybody would be following some spiritual path or other would be one more likely than today´s dominant hyper-individualism to pull people together and successfully surmount the complex of crises that threaten humanity with chaos and extinction?


1) A, T. Beck, Prisoners of Hate. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. For example, p.138. See generally John C. Gibbs, Moral Development and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, especially chapter seven.

2) Gary Becker. Prize Lecture. Lecture to the memory of Alfred Nobel, December 9, 1992. The Economic Way of Looking at Life.

3) Ray Fisman and Miriam Golden (2017) Corruption (What Everybody Needs to Know). Oxford: Oxford University ´s

4) Consider the methodological critiques of a series of studies using Becker-like methodologies in Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex and Power, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985. And consider Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990.

5) For example, 1 Samuel 16:7; Matthew 6:4

6) Douglas Porpora et al, Post Ethical Society: The Moral Failure of the Secular, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2013.


Prof. Howard Richards now teaches at the University of Santiago and the University of Cape Town.  He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He was born in Pasadena, California but since 1966 has lived in Chile when not teaching in other places. Professor of Peace and Global Studies Emeritus, Earlham College, a school in Richmond Indiana affiliated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) known for its peace and social justice commitments. J.D. Stanford Law School, MA and PhD in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, Advanced Certificate in Education-Oxford,  PhD in Educational Planning from University of Toronto. Books:  Dilemmas of Social Democracies with Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics with Joanna Swanger, The Nurturing of Time Future, Understanding the Global Economy (available in PDF on line), The Evaluation of Cultural Action, Following Foucault:The Trail of the Fox (with Catherine Hoppers and Evelin Lindner),  (on Amazon as an e book), Unbounded Organizing in Community (with Gavin Andersson, also on Amazon),  Rethinking Thinking (with Catherine Hoppers),  Hacia otras Economias with Raul Gonzalez, free download available at www.repensar.clSolidaridad, Participacion, Transparencia: conversaciones sobre el socialismo en Rosario, ArgentinaAvailable free on the blogspot lahoradelaetica.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jul 2020.

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