In the United Kingdom, as I am sure in some other countries, bribery is a criminal offence. To bribe someone is illegal and to pay a bribe is illegal. However, as we know, in rare instances disobeying a law may not be being unethical.  There is another difficulty – what if you bribe someone for heir own good? For example, “If you eat your vegetables we will go and play in the park”. Of course, bribing-for-their -own-good raises more issues such how you determine what is good for another and the size of the bribe.

For example, if a FIFA official says “Pay me $10 million and I will ensure your country gets to host the next Football World Cup”, is to the host country’s advantage in terms of revenue, prestige and promotion of sport. Of course, we know this reasoning is poor because the bribe is used to secretly circumvent the procedure put in place to ensure the best bid  wins.

But how about taking a bribe?  Two examples will show how difficult it is to be ethical, if one says that paying a bribe is unethical.

1. I get to the border post of another country and the immigration official says, “There is a page missing from you passport – we have a problems here.” It is made clear that if I pay $10 this can be overcome!!! If I do not pay, I could be in the immigration queue for 5 hours. Would it be unethical to pay?

2. I am the CEO of a major British oil company and we are bidding for an exploration licence. If successful it will means jobs for 500 people and an annual income of £100 million for the next 12 years. I am approached by the Minister of Petroleum Affairs and he says, “Your bid and the Russian bid are excellent but are neck and neck. However, a signing-off fee of $10 million would enable Parliament to issue the licence to your company.” The bank account into which the $10 million is to be deposited is in another country. Would I be unethical if I paid the $10 million? If I don’t pay it another bidder will and the British company loses the jobs and income.

There is lots of talk from politicians and others about combating bribery and corruption, but do they realise how difficult it is in real life to do what they say is the ethical thing.