Morality of Whistle Blowing
Whistle blowing is the act of someone who is, or was once, on the inside of an organisation reporting on wrongdoing perpetrated by that organisation or some of its members (Mintz 2015). It can include both internal reporting (e.g. to senior management), reporting through established external channels (e.g. to industry regulatory bodies), or just reporting to the world at large (through the media or via the internet). Morality refers to the principles of right and wrong and the judgements about what constitutes good or bad behaviour that flow from these principles. So a moral act, in the context of this essay, means an action which is in line with the principles of what is right and which should lead to a (morally) good outcome.
It may appear, based on the definitions above, that whistle blowing is always the moral thing to do, as it exposes wrongdoing. But the truth is more complex than that because whether what is being exposed is wrong or not depends, to some extent, on individual perceptions, and also must be balanced against potential negative moral consequences that the act of whistle blowing could bring about. Also when determining morality we must also consider the motivations of the person taking the action, in this case the whistle blower. My argument in this paper, therefore, is that whistle blowing is only morally right provided it meets certain conditions.
The work of De George on whistle blowing identified circumstances in which it was morally the right thing to do. Firstly, if the actions of the organisation being reported on would do significant damage to others. Secondly, if attempts to report the issue internally had been ignored. Thirdly, if clear evidence existed to prove the harm that would occur. And fourthly, if it was clear that going public would prevent harm from occurring (De George 2010, 298-318). Based on this, an example of whistle blowing that would be considered morally acceptable would be if an employee had evidence that the online company he was working for was not keeping its customers’ private details, including financial information, secure, and attempts to report this internally had been ignored. In such circumstances going public could be expected to bring about positive change because it would make the company change its practices because of negative publicity and it would give customers the chance to make informed decisions about taking their business elsewhere.
By the same standards, we could argue that whistle blowing is not a moral act if the harm that is being exposed is less than the damage done by the act of whistle blowing. This fits in with utilitarian perspectives on morality (Driver 2014). A utilitarian would consider whistle blowing to be immoral if it exposed some minor harm done to a small number of customers, but resulted in lots of people losing their jobs because the organisation being exposed was forced to close. Similar arguments are applied in cases in which national security secrets are leaked, some see it exposes wrongdoing by the government, but others see it as treason which undermines the country’s broader interests and, perhaps, even puts the lives of secret agents at risk. Whistle blowing has often been shown to have serious negative consequences for the whistle blower themselves and often for their families, other people whose interests must be considered when assessing whether blowing the whistle is morally the right thing to do. Research shows two-thirds of whistle blowers came to have severe financial problems and one-half to have family problems (Bouville 2008).
According to De George’s standards whistle blowing is also immoral if the person doing the exposing has not given the organisation a chance to fix things internally and if they do not have clear evidence (De George 2010). This relates to issues of personal morality, motivation and truth telling. Perhaps the “whistle blower” is a disgruntled employee who has a grudge against the company or its owner and wishes to bring them down. His claims could be lies, but if we always see whistle blowers as being morally right then we will believe him and the company will be damaged unfairly. This is why it is very important to not automatically regard whistle blowing as moral, but to look into the evidence and the potential motivations of the whistle blower.
Some would argue against these realistic criteria on the basis of Kantian deontological ethics, which hold that moral standards are absolutes which it is one’s duty always to uphold regardless of circumstances or consequences (Johnson and Cureton 2019). According to these views whistle blowing, provided it was exposing a real issue, would always be correct, irrespective of any damage the whistle blowing might do.
The most recent famous recent example of a whistle blower is Edward Snowden, who exposed spying by the US government on private citizens (McAskill 2019). Views on the morality of his actions vary depending on what people see as the standard of morality. If someone highly valued citizens’ rights to privacy free from government prying they would see Snowden as a hero. Other people believe that the government has a right to put national interests about private interests and therefore was within its moral rights to spy, such people see would see Snowden as a traitor and his actions as immoral (Bouville 2008).
This illustrates the ever present issue of subjectivity in moral decision making – in some ways it comes down to personal perceptions of what is and is not moral. But I think that De George’s standards, described above, provide a good basis for determining the morality or otherwise of any whistle blowing, because they focus on a utilitarian approach of avoiding great harm, and they also prioritise ensuring that the whistle blowing is based on solid evidence and only happens if reasonable attempts to fix the problem internally have failed.
De George, R.T. 2010. Business Ethics. New York: Prentice Hall.
Driver, Julia. 2014. “The History of Utilitarianism”, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Metaphysics Research Lab. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/utilitarianism-history/
McAskill, Ewen. 2019. “Snowden,” The Guardian, September 13, 2019
Mintz, Steven. 2017. “Is Whistleblowing a Moral Act?” Last modified July 14, 2015. https://www.ethicssage.com/2015/07/is-whistleblowing-a-moral-act.html#:~:text=Most %20ethicists%20agree%20whistleblowing%20is,with%20little%20costs%20to %20themselves.
Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. 2019. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Metaphysics Research Lab.https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/kant-moral/