Document Type



Law and Philosophy


Institutional corruption refers to actions that are legal yet carry negative consequences for the greater good. Such legal yet harmful behaviors have been observed among politicians and donors who establish quid-pro-quo relationships in exchange for money and among doctors who receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies in return for recommending the companies’ drugs. How does the general public reconcile the tension between the legal status of an action and its impact on the greater good and judge the action’s moral acceptability? We explored this question empirically by comparing the relative weight people give to the legal status of actions and to the impact of actions when judging moral acceptability. Results show that people unequivocally rely on legal status and ignore the impact of the actions. We conclude that people outsource their moral judgments to the law. The law does not simply reflect people’s sense of corruption but determines it. Together, our research suggests a surprising and ironic role for the law: that it diminishes independent, critical thinking.