AskDefine | Define venality

Dictionary Definition

venality n : prostitution of talents or offices or services for reward

User Contributed Dictionary



From French vénalité or Latin venalitas, from venalisvenal’.


  • /vɪ'nælɪti/


  1. the fact or state of being for sale, especially with reference to bribes or corruption
    • 1785: As your spirited paper has declared war, not only against venality and despotism, but was intended to correct follies and abuses in private life, I hope the following will come within its useful plan. — The Times, 17 Jan 1785, p.1 col. B

Extensive Definition

Venality is a vice associated with being for sale, especially when one should act justly instead. This is mostly considered a vice rather than a virtue.
In its most recognizable form, dishonesty, venality causes people to lie and steal for their personal advantage, and is related to bribery and nepotism, among other vices.
Venality in its mild form is a vice notable especially among those with government or military careers. In these fields, one is supposed to act with justice and honor, and should not accept bribes. This ensures that the organization isn't susceptible to self-interested parties. For people to accept settlements and legislation, the acts of the government must be seen as just. This perception enhances the legitimacy of the government. Venality is a term often used with reference to pre-revolutionary France, where it describes the then-widespread practice of selling administrative positions within the government to the highest bidder.
In contrast, no one would be surprised to find a merchant or hired person making professional decisions for venal reasons. In fact, Adam Smith and other libertarian economists might argue that venality is a virtue, because it helps create the invisible hand that controls market forces. Nonetheless, this may be why many militaristic societies frequently despise merchants.
Literal Definition
Below is the definition of "venality" from The Oxford English Dictionary:
1. The quality or fact of being for sale. rare.
2. The quality of being venal; readiness to give support or favour in return for profit or reward; prostitution of talents or principles for mercenary considerations.
In contrast to the previous interpretation, greed or dishonesty are not specifically expressed in the literal meaning, but is often implied, also the condition of refusing to act justly is not a literal component of the word's meaning. By its strict definition, committing venal acts does not indicate "stealing", but rather suggests a consensual arrangement, perhaps without conscience or regard for consequences, but is is not synonymous with stealing. Though venality is generally used as a pejorative term, an individual or entity could be venal (or mercenary) and not be corrupt or unethical. One could perform one's duties or job in a perfunctory manner in order to collect a wage or payment, or prostitute one's time or skills for monetary or material gain, without necessarily being dishonest.
Much contemporary use of the words venal or venality is applied to modern professional athletes, particularly baseball, basketball and American football players in the United States. The implication being that the high-priced players are essentially "hired guns" with no allegiance to any team or city, and are motivated solely by the acquisition of material wealth.
Several so-called Reality TV programs have been criticized for their promotion of venal behavior; specifically Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, in which fifty women competed to marry a presumed multi-millionaire who was shown only in silhouette. The premise that the contestants would compete to marry an unseen stranger for no other reason than his wealth would be an example of venality.
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