The Legacy of Geographical Morality and Colonialism: A Historical Assessment of the Current Crusade Against Corruption

Padideh Ala'i, American University Washington College of Law


This Article examines the legacy of the rule of geographical morality - that is the norm by which a citizen of the country in the North may engage in acts of corruption in any country in the South, including bribery and extortion, without the attachment of any moral condemnation to those acts. Part I of the Article begins by reviewing the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, who served as Governor General of the Bengal from 1772-1785, on charges of bribery and corruption. It was during that impeachment proceeding when the words "principles of geographical morality" were used by, the prosectuor, Edmund Burke, to describe Hasting's defense. Part II of the Article examines the revisionist approach to corruption first set forth by social scientists in the 1960s. The revisionists embraced moral relativism and concentrated on external causes of corruption instead of moral shortcomings. This approach perpetuated the rule of geographical morality by allowing multinational corporations to hide behind "culture" as the reason for their participation in corrupt business transactions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Part III evaluates the recent post-Cold War discourse on corruption and bribery, which rejects geographical morality by adhering to a universal standard of conduct. Finally, part IV discusses regional and global legal initiatives against corruption from the 1970s to the present. These initiatives seek to eliminate the rule of geographical morality by requiring uniform standards of conduct by private and public officials, irrespective of geography. However the article concludes that the legacy of geographical morality still informs the current anti-corruption movement.