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When is a Bribe a Bribe? Teaching a Workable Definition of Bribery

Harvey S. James Jr.

University of Missouri

Teaching Business Ethics, Forthcoming

In this paper I present an approach to teaching about and defining bribery that starts with the presumption that a payment, once defined as a "bribe," is prima facie unethical. That is, I make no distinction between "good bribes" and "bad bribes." In short, bribery cannot be justified. In this context, how could you determine precisely when a particular payment constitutes a bribe and when it does not? I present a framework for defining bribery in such a way that it (1) retains the presumption that bribery is unethical, (2) reflects our intuitive understanding of bribery, and (3) is flexible enough to effectively discriminate between bribe and non-bribe payments. This definition is based on the principal-agent relationship in that bribes are payments to agents to induce them to act against the interests of their principals.

I begin the paper by describing a classroom exercise designed to force students to think about what a good definition of bribery ought to be. First, I give students a sheet of paper describing 11 brief scenarios in which a payment is to be made from one person to another. These scenarios are reproduced in the paper. Second, I ask them to identify which scenarios constitute the payment of a bribe, according to their understanding of bribery. Third, I challenge students to formulate a general definition of bribery that justifies their assessments of the specific cases they have identified as bribery. That is, they must develop one definition of bribery to account for each of the cases of bribery they identified. Fourth, I invite students to offer to the class whether or not a particular scenario is an example of bribery, what their definition of bribery is, and why their definition supports their conclusions. Finally, I apply their definitions to other scenarios to determine whether the definitions force the students to agree with their original assessments of what cases involved bribery. Examples of definitions typically offered are provided, along with my responses as to why they are inferior.

I then offer a definition of bribery based on the principal-agent framework. A principal-agent relationship exists when a principal delegates some task or assignment to an agent, who is then made responsible for acting in the principal's interest. The important idea here is that the agent, by agreeing to enter into a principal-agent relationship, accepts the obligation to act in the interest of the principal. The concept of a principal-agent relationship provides a straightforward means of defining bribery. A bribe is a payment, made by a third party to an agent of a principal, in which the agent explicitly or implicitly agrees to take an action that is contrary to his duty as an agent of the principal and is thus not in the interest of the principal. A bribe cannot be, by definition, a payment made to a principal (although a payment made to a principal may be unethical for other reasons); only agents can be bribed, not principals. Effectively, this means that in assessing whether business payments are bribes, one should determine whether the person receiving the payment is an agent of a principal, and if the payment is going to be retained by the agent.

Note: This is a description of the paper and not the actual abstract.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 25

Keywords: Bribery, business ethics, principal-agent problem

JEL Classification: A12

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Date posted: February 27, 2003  

Suggested Citation

James, Harvey S., When is a Bribe a Bribe? Teaching a Workable Definition of Bribery. Teaching Business Ethics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=295745

Contact Information

Harvey S. James Jr. (Contact Author)
University of Missouri ( email )
146 Mumford Hall
Columbia, MO 65211
United States
573-884-9682 (Phone)
573-882-3958 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://hsjames2.wordpress.com/
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