Nov 11th 2017

Priti Patel, ancient Rome and moral leadership

by Daniel Hough

Daniel Hough does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Priti Patel’s ignominious departure from the UK cabinet after it emerged that she had held undeclared meetings with Israeli officials during a personal holiday exposes many flaws in her conduct. The commentariat tells us she showed a lack of judgement, a lack of awareness of due process and a willingness to conduct what, in effect, was her own foreign policy.

One word that hasn’t come up so frequently is “corruption”. That’s in many ways understandable. Corruption is generally understood in transactional terms with four key parts. An act is understood as corrupt if there is a (i) deliberate attempt (ii) to abuse (iii) entrusted power (iv) for some sort of private gain. Corruption is normally regarded as a process rather than an outcome and acts that tick all of those boxes are subsequently judged as such. That all of those terms can and do require some sort of external judgement to be made ensures that we can’t talk about objective realities. We do, however, have a decent starting point for making sense of a complex world.

This understanding of corruption is, however, relatively new. Indeed, it’s only in the past few decades that corruption has been understood in this form. Yet corruption has, of course, been around for as long as humans have sought to organise themselves. Aristotle, for example, argued corruption is a symbol of the dysfunctionality of states that have moved away from their “pure” state of being. For Aristotle and a number of his contemporaries, corruption has a clear moral dimension and that moral core is the very essence of corruption, leading inevitably to decay, degradation and ultimately state failure.

Why Rome fell

A similar logic has been used by historians such as Ramsay McMullen when they argue that the ever-deepening problem of corruption is the primary reason the Roman Empire fell.

MacMullen’s thesis is straightforward and well documented: corruption led successive governments to concentrate more on the need to generate private gains (of whatever sort) for themselves and their supporters, and less on the demands of running a large and complex empire. The moral core that characterised much of the thinking of Rome’s founders had withered away over time; subsequent Roman leaders not only lost control of the government, but the government lost sight of what it existed to do. Even when it became apparent that corruption was at the core of the administration’s work, attempts at reform came too late. Like a cancer, corruption had penetrated too many parts of the public ethos.

The fall of Rome was also pivotal in Montesquieu’s thinking on corruption (and state failure). He explained in detail how the virtuous thinking of Rome’s founders helped it become an empire, but how the corruption of Rome’s moral fibre ultimately brought the empire down. For Montesquieu and MacMullen, as well as many others, corruption was at the very core of Rome’s descent into dissolution.

A question of morals

Corruption, no matter how it is defined, certainly has a moral dimension to it. That remains so regardless of the fact that many would prefer to couch their analysis, and, indeed, their prescriptions, in the language of rationality, interests, costs and benefits.

Much of the recent work on corruption – produced largely by those with the economist’s mind-set – has purposefully avoided the moral minefield and instead aspired to embrace some sort of objective understanding of corruption. That’s ultimately unlikely to be a fruitful way forward in terms of actually fighting corruption in practice; morals drive understandings of what’s appropriate and ignoring them doesn’t mean that they simply go away.

Bringing issues of morality back into our analysis subsequently helps us comprehend much more about what we understand corruption to be as well as how (and, indeed, whether) we go about tackling it. The moral dimension to the corruption challenge, therefore, cannot be an optional extra.

It’s with that in mind that the behaviour of Priti Patel is so interesting. There is little evidence to suggest that she might be guilty of corruption in the modern understanding of the term, but she certainly did do things that corruption analysts of yesteryear would recognise as falling in to that category. At a push one could certainly argue she broke the ministerial code and that’s clearly a process violation. But it is really by looking at broader normative issues of what’s right, why it’s right and how we can recognise it as such do we really see why behaviour such as Patel’s can be so corrosive.

Rome ultimately didn’t fall because of the specific acts of one person. Rome’s problems escalated over time as the moral core that characterised the thinking of Rome’s founders ceased to shape their decision-making. Theresa May is hardly Romulus Augustus, but a government that neglects the importance of moral leadership is in dangerous waters. If nothing else, Priti Patel’s resignation should give us reason to ponder the ramifications of that.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.




To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

If you have something to say that you want to say on Facts & Arts, please

Write to the Editor, or write a comment in the comments section.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."