Noble cause corruption is corruption caused by the inappropriate adherence to a consequentialist ethical system, suggesting that persons ‘will utilize unethical, and sometimes illegal, means to obtain a desired result,’ a result which appears to benefit the greater good. Where traditional corruption is defined by personal gain, noble cause corruptions forms when someone, often in a position of authority, is convinced of their righteousness, and will do anything within their powers to obtain the execution of righteous actions. It is based on a belief that ‘the ends justify the means’, which can be ethically justified in exceptional cases, such as stealing medicine to save a person’s life.
In the area of law enforcement, noble cause corruption is police misconduct ‘committed in the name of good ends’ or neglect of due process through ‘a moral commitment to make the world a safer place to live’. This can include fabricating or planting evidence to secure a conviction, lying in court or covering up other police misconduct. Conditions for such corruption usually begin where individuals perceive no administrative accountability, lack of morale and leadership, and the general absence of faith in the criminal justice system. These conditions can be compounded by arrogance and weak supervision. Noble cause corruption is almost never justified in law enforcement, because it undermines parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.
In 1983, Carl Klockars critiqued the film Dirty Harry, as an example of the kinds of circumstances that seemed to justify what later became known as noble cause corruption. Within the story, three central actions demonstrate manifestations of noble cause corruption: illegal entry, torture, and murder. Klockars believed this problem, which he dubbed ‘the Dirty Harry problem’, was a chief consideration of police work. He details how police officers occasionally face problems in which they have to select between competing ethical codes. Often the choice is between legal means, which is playing by society’s rules though dangerous offenders may go free, or extra-legal means, which entails breaking the law to prevent truly dangerous offenders from committing additional crimes.
In 1989, however, the term of ‘noble cause corruption’ was first coined by Edwin Delattre. Delattre was troubled that police officers might conceive of a goal or outcome that justified the use of questionable means, in particular, the use of force to obtain confessions. He argued that ‘some ways of acting were unacceptable no matter how noble the end.’ From Delattre’s work, the noble cause has emerged as a problem for the utilitarian commitment to outcomes, for it permits a society to be protected through aggressive and illegal policing tactics.