Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The first sign of corruption


The field of International Days is so crowded that they often find themselves with strange partners. In the case of International Anti-Corruption Day (9 December) and International Human Rights Day (10 December), however, the match is perfect. When a society denies human rights to some of its people it introduces a corruption that will rot its way through other people and institutions. Equally where corruption of any kind spreads it will soon eat away at human rights.   

Human rights are sometimes seen as a list of entitlements that governments must defend by law and regulation. That certainly is part of the story. But to think to some purpose about rights we need to set them in the broader framework of human relationships and so of what it means to be human. The starting point is the conviction that each human being is precious and unique. They have an innate dignity by virtue of being human. It is not given by law, earned by good behaviour or lost by illegal behaviour. Nor does it depend on the circumstances of our lives:  our race, for example, our religion, our citizenship or lack of it, our political views, our wealth, our contribution to the economy, our age, our intelligence, or our mental and physical health.

Human rights are about how human beings should relate to one another. They assume another central quality of human life — that if we are to flourish as human beings we depend on others. We are not self-made but depend on others to be born, educated, sociable, travel and communicate. Our flourishing depends on the flourishing of others and of our society.

A list of human rights spells out some of the things necessary for human flourishing — life, shelter, health care, education, freedom of movement and speech, or example. In an ideal society each person will give and receive respect from others as persons. Mutual respect means that I also concede to others any entitlements that I may have. It also means that I do not define rights by my individual desires and choices, but that in my desires and choices I look always to the common good as well as to my own interests. 

Underlying the recognition of human rights is the conviction that no human beings may ever be treated as a means to others’ ends. When rights come into conflict, they must be negotiated in such a way that each person is respected even if the choice of each may be limited by the rights of others.

Corruption in society is a sign that respect for human dignity has been eroded. If we identify the value of human beings with their ability to compete, we are easily led to treat other people and groups in society as instruments to be used for our own gain. The result is that the integrity of public institutions and people’s trust in them are eaten away.

Although corruption can take many forms it is usually identified with financial corruption, where election results, legal judgments and property titles and public appointments can be bought for cash, and public funds held for the good of society as a whole and for vulnerable people within it are diverted to individuals and to corporations for a price. This behaviour is both corrupt and corrupting. It fails to show due respect for others. It also corrupts society by diminishing the trust that others have in social institutions, so making it more likely that people will exploit them for individual or corporate gain.


'Corruption always favours private interests over the public interest and sees people as instruments to be used and not as persons to be respected. It breeds cynicism in society.'


A corrupt society will inevitably infringe on human rights. It separates power from responsibility, and so encourages people to defend their power and privilege by responding violently to those who unmask them. Corruption always favours private interests over the public interest and sees people as instruments to be used and not as persons to be respected. It breeds cynicism in society.

The failure to respect human rights also inevitably leads to an ethical corruption that will spread to financial corruption. As Georges Bernanos observed, ‘The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.’ This was verified in the Australian treatment of people who came to Australia by boat to seek protection from persecution. Its original sin lay in the introduction of mandatory indefinite detention in order to deter others from coming by boat. Although temporary detention to establish their identity might have been justified, to deprive them of freedom as a punishment to deter others was ethically unjustified. It treated people as a means to an end that was inconsistent with their flourishing. This disrespect was a corruption that touched all associated with it — those responsible for keeping them locked up, those entrusted with the administration of the policy, politicians who devised it, and the public who came to accept it. It has led to the total denial of human dignity evident in the establishment and the regime of Manus Island, in the treatment of mentally ill people repatriated to Australia, and in the rationalisations used to defend it. As in Augustine’s classical treatment of original sin, it blinded minds, hardened hearts, and made institutions foolish. It inevitably nurtured the lack of respect that has become evident in other relationships of government to Indigenous Australians, to people who are unemployed, to women who brave entry to the political world, to the environment and to the improper disbursal of money for electoral gain. 

Human rights are not a list of things that are unrelated to one another. They are rooted in an understanding of what it means for human beings to flourish. Nor is corruption confined to financial dealings. It is present whenever due respect is not paid to human beings once disrespect is embodied in one set of relationships it will inevitably spread to others. That is the bad news. The good news is that when respect is similarly embodied in one place, it will also be contagious.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Illustration of business people exchanging money. (Fanatic Studio / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, nostalgia, culture wars, values, history



submit a comment

Existing comments

Sixty years ago
Church Fete tea and cake, sixpence a plate
Tombola fun, smiling Nun, prizes for everyone
One shilling a go, five tickets to show
Make a match, you have a catch
Toy for every girl and boy
Soap and scent, can we tempt?
Whisky and smokes with the men she jokes
Late in the day, less of an array, many have gone away
The Sheppard to the Nun, have we had a good one?
In the palm of her hand, the whiskies ticket did stand
With a smile on her face as if reflecting Grace
We know who will be having a taste
Collusion at play having its day
Although this may seem small in the scheme of it all
Sin is sin from the very begin
Whatever its face, in any time or place
To those that should know better, it brings disgrace
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 09 December 2021  

Government corruption, corporate corruption .... but couldn't you have looked a little closer to home for examples?

Russell | 10 December 2021  

Good description of modern day politicians! Pity that they are destroying Judeo-Christian Civilisation, the greatest this world has ever seen while pursuing their own greed and other interests.

john frawley | 10 December 2021  

I had to think about this article which suggests to link corruption to failings of respect of others in human rights; each touchy subjects. Corruption can exist in many forms; the question becomes: is an official allocating funds in a particular manner necessarily disrespectful of those who are not beneficiaries of the funds by selecting others perhaps worthy but able to return a perceived non-fiduciary benefit to the official? In matters of human rights, Andy has elected to progress an extension of the Enlightenment-era concepts of inherent, inalienable rights to include the value-added respect and dignity. Early architects of human rights designed them such that by affording others their inherent rights that respect was understood and maintained; the dignity happened as a result. However, the converse does not follow. Failure to observe respect for/of another doesn't automatically alienate their human rights. In Western culture we value certain virtues and wisdom, frequently those most in need of "human rights" don't possess the attributes needed for respect. Suggested: "...not to look for a man's alleged "dignity," but, on the contrary, to regard him as an object of pity." I'd encourage further reading of Schopenhauer.

ray | 10 December 2021  
Show Responses

Hi Ray,

About “ Failure to observe respect for/of another doesn't automatically alienate their human rights. ”. While that is self-evident, I don’t think this was the point of Andrew’’s commentary. The Christian viewpoint is that accepting everyone has an innate dignity and should be treated with respect accordingly, leads to the acceptance of our entitlement to human rights. The fact that this is not universally recognised and accepted is how corruption breeds.

Frank S | 11 December 2021  

Corruption wears many disguises. Shakespeare observed: “O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
And when words like “democracy” and “justice” mean different things to different people, the writer and classical music critic Michael Walsh was prompted to write: “The two sides speak different languages, but with a superficially shared vocabulary that serves as a means of deceit for one and confusion for the other.”
Thus, the Victorian government acts in an “unjust” and “inhumane” manner (Victorian Ombudsman); introduces “Stasi police” powers (Christopher Blanden, Q.C.); allowing it “effectively to rule the state of Victoria by decree for the foreseeable future” (26 barristers, including 23 Q.Cs.}; Britain’s top retired judge, Lord Sumption, condemns the state’s “cavalier use of coercive powers” as “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of [Britain]”, and there is hardly any protest from any of the usual suspects who are always most vociferous in trumpeting human rights.
The hollowness and politicized nature of the lawyer-driven human rights complex has been exposed as little more than virtue signalling and cheap politics run through the courts and disguised under the heading of “human rights.”

Ross Howard | 10 December 2021  
Show Responses

The distortion of language and rejection of its ability to secure shared understanding (a pastime as ancient as the Athenian sophists) has become une arme de choix for those - both theorists and activists - seeking to 'deconstruct' the core institutions of western civilization (of which, ironically many are the beneficiaries); a campaign in close alliance with deflection and denial of what they are seeking to effect, and the repudiation of Greek philosophy and its development in conjunction with faith.

John RD | 12 December 2021  

You are undoubtedly right, JohnRD, with your post perfectly and for the umpteenth time illustrating yet again what we most disagree with in those who take issue with us, who may not have the same background of theological knowledge and who are held potential captive to our respective authoritative 'magisterial' view. Thinking about mimesis, a theme that features prominently on Joel Hodges' ACU research profile, I am struck by the extent to which the 'There, but for the Grace of God' aphorism holds good for some who post regularly in this column. To me the 'Yes, but; no, but' nature of our messaging, while reminding us of the fervour and zeal that motivates, prohibits discursive exploration. Please God we are able to break through to a new mould in the New Year, instead of holding ES readers to ransom with the rancidity that hallmarks our endlessly repetitive argumentation and combative postures of previous years. Whatever its authenticity and links with the past - 'Greek', 'Western' or, even in my instance, 'global' - it contains and stymies a Judeo-Christian entelechy that postulates a Christ whose revelation continues throughout history and transcends the containment and limitation imposed by our own human condition.

Michael Furtado | 21 December 2021  

These are points well made, Ross. But like all that arrests, they remind of equally powerful countervailing positions carefully laid down in political philosophy and ethics by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Burke and T H Green. While the aforementioned are generally corralled, usually by elderly Quadrant readers of the kind with an ideological axe to grind (and which include quite a few Catholics, who regard their politics more highly than the Gospels, which in turn proclaim only Love and Justice) you will find that, far from expressing a 'Western Canon', seen as perfectly fitting their image of all that is godly and virtuous, there is a great deal of disagreement between them, and which helps explain that democratic theory is a travelling discourse, added to by contrarians like Marx. For instance, Edmund Burke's conservatism is light years away from Locke's liberalism, both aspects of which have found their way into juridical debate, and in respect of which there is, thankfully, widespread argumentation. Seeing as your posts are so categorically unilateral, espousing a philosophy that consistently upholds individual rights above those of the common good of all, especially in contemporary Covidial context, its good to remember there's another side.

Michael Furtado | 21 December 2021  

Thanks Andrew for an elegant diagnosis of why our present neoliberal politics has failed us. For me, the crux of the issue is in mutual dependency which defines us all.

You write: "Human rights are about how human beings should relate to one another. They assume another central quality of human life — that if we are to flourish as human beings we depend on others. We are not self-made but depend on others to be born, educated, sociable, travel and communicate. Our flourishing depends on the flourishing of others and of our society."

Some see our mutual dependency as limitation and handicap, but this is wrong. As outlined by science journalist Kate Ravilious ("Survival of the friendliest? Why Homo sapiens outlived other humans", New Scientist, 24 November 2021, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25233625-000-survival-of-the-friendliest-why-homo-sapiens-outlived-other-humans/#ixzz7EdxUmUud), it is our capacity and need for co-operation and mutual aid that has made us the most successful hominin on this world.

Thanks to the corporate and political corruption we've inadvertently let fester, things may not be looking good for our future at present; however, we know that a return to truth-telling and honest dealing will see us past this century.

David Arthur | 10 December 2021  
Show Responses

Good comment David, I was almost going to agree but the link to the New Scientist article was interrupted with a £2 subscription fee, thus I shall remain ignorant like my Neanderthal cousins. Surely, I have failed the second phase of the survival test of the homo sapiens: trust in someone which was misplaced. Maybe the survival of the friendliest is better described as a group who were willing to overlook shortcomings of others? Personally, I think if we clubbed leaders that made errors of judgement more readily we might have a better class of leader... or less errors.

ray | 11 December 2021  

Well said, David Arthur, despite your being damned by some for the relative expense and attendant monetary inaccessibility of the message that you have so eloquently and generously paid for, referenced and transmitted to us. I suspect it has nothing to do with the 'price of fish', a miserable discourse that invariably underpins much of what is posted here, but deep and troubled objection to the profundity of your, Andy's and Ravilious' arresting texts. Go well!

Michael Furtado | 27 December 2021  

The Catholic Doctrine of Original Sin is an acknowledgement that we are all imperfect and prone to do the wrong thing. Fortunately, political corruption in Australia has not reached Russian or Indian levels, but there are worrying signs. A strong ICAC, with some sensible controls, as in NSW, is absolutely essential in all Australian political jurisdictions. I am glad you write articles like this, Andy. This is where sensible clerics should speak out.

Edward Fido | 11 December 2021  
Show Responses

Well-posted, Edward! And Andy's saying heaps more! In 1985, with Joh's corrupt regime tottering, the Human Rights Commission introduced the topic as an important one for schools. Joh turned it down so seeding money was offered to non-government schools and fell into my lap to dispense. Some of the most strident objections were from Catholic teachers/clergy who quickly saw that the abuse of power in the classroom upheld substantial aspects of the discipline in their schools. Ernst Gombrich,, a Jew, had just translated his 'Little History of the World' and a nephew at St Aloysius showed me his copy. Gombrich had added, post-War, a new chapter on human rights, which Pius XII used in his endorsement of the UN. Andy's valiant essay, having attracted the predictable objections of the usual pettifoggers and pedants, proves at least one thing, viz. that the issue is alive and well at many levels of society, not just the social and political but additional others to be called out in our personal and professional lives. One way to start might be to address how it applies to the manipulation of the Synod. If our bishops don't acknowledge the extent Church corruption, what chance have we?

Michael Furtado | 16 December 2021  

PS. It surprises, Edward, that you didn't use the run up to Christmas as an opportunity to explain why Jesus was born without 'Original Sin', yet had to be baptised. But then I quickly remembered that your style is declaratory, relying more upon a memory of a contorted 'received wisdom' than on a preference and respect for explanation.

Michael Furtado | 27 December 2021  

Unless a clump of earth is unique, or a stone, there is nothing precious and unique about an adam or a child of Abraham than the Breath expired into it. If you believe in the ‘Breath’, you can construct an edifice of rights upon it. If you don’t, ascribing preciousness and uniqueness to another is merely creating precedent to protect you if happenstance turns against you.

But, if you believe in the ‘Breath’, you must acknowledge that the Breath postulates it is better for some not to have been born or to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around its neck, or for an eye to be put out or a hand amputated. That the Breath chooses to couch hyperbole in canonical language that is violent suggests that ‘flourishing’ is only so if it is within the canon.

‘A list of human rights spells out some of the things necessary for human flourishing’ As in, spells out some of the things necessary for flourishing within the canon. If you seek flourishing outside, and the Fall liberated human taste to embrace anything as a flourishing, you’re not using rights to justify your actions but licence to excuse them.

roy chen yee | 14 December 2021  
Show Responses

Thank you, here and elsewhere in your postings, for locating human rights within their created context and the theological ontology on which they rest, and in which we humans "live and breathe and have our being", Roy. A blessed Christmas and new year!

John RD | 23 December 2021  

Thank you, John, and the same to you!

roy chen yee | 24 December 2021  

JohnRD and Roy Chen Yee, post Attila, Genghis Khan, Cortes (humankind's Catholic Imperialista murderer extraordinaire), the Inquisition, the Holocaust and Nanking, there is simply no such thing as a 'theological ontology' upon which human rights rest, i.e. not at least one that is recognised, acknowledged and gaining of the consent of our multi-variegated universe. While there are many sources for a construction of such a concept within a variety of holy books, texts and myths from diverse 'relicts' around the world, the epistemological problem relating to which is that all of them are to varying degrees either anthropocentric and/or maculinist, Judeo-Christians, attributing our sources to scripture and tradition, commonly and enthusiastically attach greatest importance on this matter to the United Nations Declaration, presaged by Pius XII in 1942 and signed by him in 1948. This overturned the entelechy of several prior Popes, whose world views were irredentist, feudal, unyielding and, with the benefit of hindsight, plainly ontologically inadequate to envisage a cosmos of the kind that +Francis clearly pronounces in 'Laudato si' (2015). Those who advocate otherwise are Catholic revanchists, struggling to regain control of a universal human rights agenda that has long since been conceded to broader inclusive interests.

Michael Furtado | 27 December 2021  

‘no such thing as a 'theological ontology' upon which human rights rest….’

Logic: if you believe Scripture is guaranteed to be true by the only God which exists, there must be a theology which determines what can legitimately be said to be a human right.

‘gaining of the consent of our multi-variegated universe. While there are many…holy books, texts and myths from diverse 'relicts' around the world, the epistemological problem…is that all of them are…anthropocentric and/or masculinist….’

Irrelevant. If you believe Scripture is guaranteed to be true by the only God which exists, you must, to stay logical, believe also that any other tradition of reasoning is true to the extent to which it is compatible with Scripture. Other than these, it is false.

Logic: if you believe the composition of the Canon of Scripture was decided by the official Church under the inspiration of the only God which exists, you must, to stay logical, believe that only the official Church can authoritatively interpret Scripture. This is so because it had to use this same interpretative faculty to interpret out all those other writings from the Christian tradition which were not included within the Canon of Scripture.

roy chen yee | 08 January 2022  

Roy (14/XII), the 'stone' or 'clump of earth' was made by God, invested with free-will and Creation theology takes the view that the 'Breath of God' isn't 'expired' into us, but also, as 'co-partners' of His in Creation, also 'inspired' by Him.

While delighted that John RD publicly wished you the blessings of Christmas, it beggars belief that such a well-informed scholar didn't pick this up.

John RD also missed your second paragraph with its 'millstone' reference, conveniently forgetting to remind you, as he never forgets with others, that the Birth of Christ, which we celebrate and will continue to ad infinitum, removed the millstone to which you are so firmly attached.

Thirdly, your construction of human rights, whether John RD is cheered up no end by it or not, is not what the Church teaches, which is that human rights are for all.

After all, we know that those removed from or unknowing of the love of Christ cannot be blamed, punished or otherwise condemned for seeing and doing things differently.

While that constitutes the basis for renewed evangelisation on our part as Christians, its just very poor theology on your's to construct it the way that you do!

Michael Furtado | 11 January 2022  

‘the 'Breath of God' isn't 'expired' into us, but also, as 'co-partners' of His in Creation, also 'inspired' by Him.’

If this means that we receive not only life but life meant to do inspired and inspiring things, yes. And?

‘the Birth of Christ…removed the millstone to which you are so firmly attached.’

And then he re-attached it to the canon in Luke 17:2.

‘the Church teaches…human rights are for all’

The Church teaches that human licence is for none, as we see in the traditional four sin-sectors which cry to Heaven for vengeance.

‘we know that those removed from or unknowing of the love of Christ cannot be blamed, punished or otherwise condemned for seeing and doing things differently.’

Those removed from or unknowing of the love of Christ are still accountable to the natural law by the innate propensity of their intellect which still reflects an image and likeness of God, although persistent interference with it under the influence of physical or mental lust can darken that intellect.

roy chen yee | 15 January 2022  

'The Church teaches that human licence is for none'. I know of no such teaching, except from a study of Aquinas' C13th Summa (and to whom I was said to bear a passing physical resemblance ;)

While accepting that his Coda underpins much of the canon law and which, according to some Catholic scholars, has been enhanced by moral philosophers with a deeper understanding of human nature, Thomism has also been extensively critiqued for not attaching enough significance to the Gospels, and a great deal more to the pre-Christian Aristotle. (Leo XIII did this better; while Martha Nussbaum, a Jew, is the pre-eminent global teleologist).

Because Aquinas' standpoint is of a static universe, several Catholic philosophers claim that Aquinas' work is misapplied to serve both extrinsically and intrinsically rethought positions that are merely conservative and fail to shed light on moral dilemmas that he had no means of envisaging, such as human overpopulation and the degradation of the environment. Thus, to attribute to Aquinas what some neo-scholastic scholars currently do is widely regarded in many scholarly circles as exaggerated and misapplied.

Finally, while many Gospel injunctions condemn 'licence', exhorting instead the application of love, these critique the abuse of power.

Michael Furtado | 21 January 2022  

‘'The Church teaches that human licence is for none'. I know of no such teaching….’

I haven’t heard of any teaching either that eating a live gecko is sinful but common sense suggests that culinary licence is a bad thing.

Licence: ‘Freedom to behave as one wishes, especially in a way which results in excessive or unacceptable behaviour.’


roy chen yee | 23 January 2022  

Similar Articles

There will be a next time. We must do better.

  • Cristy Clark
  • 16 December 2021

Under Victoria’s Border Directions after 23 July, people in NSW, including Victorian residents, were effectively prevented from entering the state. Their only option was to request an exemption for a number of specified reasons including ‘attending a funeral or end of life event or returning home for health, wellbeing, care or compassionate reasons or for any other reason under a general discretion’.


A tale of two webs: A strengths-based approach to place-based disadvantage

  • Sally Cowling
  • 14 December 2021

In developing an understanding of place-based disadvantage, shame and stigma are transmitted between generations within the small number of communities we collectively fail. And yet no matter the number of indicators of place-based disadvantage, each community possesses some unique strengths.