Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are perhaps some of the most hated individuals by the American government. Assange, in particular, has rubbed shoulders the wrong way with not only the US but also other foreign governments whose clandestine activities have become public knowledge after leaking through Wikileaks. At the center of this hate is whistle blowing, actions that have made the two aforementioned worldwide celebrities. In the recent past, whistleblowing has made sensational news from Chelsea Manning to Bradley Manning, Snowden and Assange. At the very least, whistleblowers simply raise attention from their places of work, purposefully to illuminate on neglect or abuse, most of which threaten the public interest (Bok 2). While many of the guilty parties would frown upon whistleblowing, the actions of the whistleblowers remains an important aspect for organizations as it brings to light the wrongdoings of organizations (including governments) and individuals.
Part of the reason for detest of whistleblowers by employers and governments is the exposure that most of these individual bring to light. Yet even in their choice to blow the whistle of certain acts, most whistleblowers have to deal with moral conflict (Bok 2). The nature of the moral conflict begins with the need to make a choice on whether or not to speak about the abuses, risks or neglect that they witness. This choice requires a decision on whether speaking out of the ills witnessed or experienced are in the public interest (Bok 2). Moreover, the choice on speaking out also requires contemplation on the individuals responsible, the nature of the threat and the outcome of speaking out.
At the center of the beginning of the moral conflict is utilitarianism, in which the whistleblower attempts to supply an answer to the question of “what man ought to do?” the answer, perhaps in the eyes of the whistleblower is the fact that man ought to act in such a way that produces the best consequence possible. The basic utilitarian concept in this cases therefore, it that it includes both the good and bad consequences produced by the act. Thus, for the classification of actions as either morally wrong or right, the action’s consequences must be of such implication that an individual would desire to see the agent convinced, not merely swayed and pushed to act in a preferred manner.
Utilitarianism, therefore, hinges upon the theory of intrinsic value. Here, the theory dictates that an action is held to be good in itself, aside from added consequences, and all other values are considered to found their value from their relation to the intrinsic good as a means to an end. In their first processing on whistleblowing, the whistleblower therefore uses the utilitarian principle of man’s need to act in such a way that produces the best consequence possible.
The second moral conflict whistleblowers have to deal with is the weight of his or her loyalty. According to Bok (2), the whistleblower has to choose between his/her responsibility to serving the public interest against the loyalty he/she owes to colleagues and the organization within which he/she works. Whistleblowers, therefore, have to deal with the ethical dilemma of choice between professional ethics that requires collegial loyalty and the code of ethics that usually stresses the public responsibility over colleagues and clients (Bok 2). The code of ethics that puts emphasis on responsibility to the public is in tandem with utilitarianism, which dictates that moralists can add up pleasure and pain units for everyone likely to be affected instantly and later, and take a balance between the good and evil. Herein, the public good surpasses the collegial loyalty, and therefore the need for whistleblowing.
Far beyond the moral dilemma for whistleblowers are the consequences of their actions, not to the public, but to their private lives. Many are the times that the whistleblowers have to live in hiding after their actions. This is as witnessed by Jeffery Wigand, who worked as the head of research and development for Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. After blowing the whistle on the company, regarding dangerous additives to cigarettes and pipe tobacco, and B&W’s attempts to conceal this information, Wigand had to live in hiding, had his children threatened and both his reputation and character surgically attacked through a systematized smear campaign of his person (Brenner). Such action is only one among the many forms of retaliatory attacks that can befall whistleblowers. According to Bok, other consequence may involve unjust impairment of their careers and their ability of the whistleblowers to sustain themselves and their families.
Consequences for whistleblowing go far beyond threats to the family to frustrating dead-end job placements. The purpose for such placements is to demoralize the employee to a point where they would prefer resigning (Bok 3). Other demoralization tactics include downgrading, little or more work than it is befitting for the employees position or ordering for a psychiatric evaluation as a means of discrediting not only the employee, but also their whistleblowing actions (Bok 3). Other organizations execute outright firing of the employee as a retaliatory response to the employee’s actions. Wigand is a particularly stark example of the extend organizations would go to discredit whistle blowers. Beginning with death threats to his family and himself, as well as firing him from his job, relegating him to a high school teacher, where B&W continued in its retaliatory attacks against him (Benner). In one sweep of action therefore, whistleblower’s lives adversely change, mostly for the worst. While the public may offer support to the whistleblowers, current events show a trend towards overlooking of the work done by whistleblowers (Bok 3).
The very nature of whistleblowing jeopardizes whistleblowers. In retaliating against whistleblowers, most victims protest against the narrow aim of whistleblowers in illuminating actions of negligence and abuse. This is in addition to action by organizations to skirt risks (Bok 3). Under such circumstances, most whistleblowers are labelled dissents, with greater personal risk when challenging repressive authorities. Most authorities therefore view the actions of whistleblowers as mere acts of disloyalty and breach of trust.
Most whistleblowers hope that by shedding light on the evils and ills of the organization, they may be able to stop the ills. However, whistleblowers end up being inconsequential noisemakers, who are therefore branded as disloyal for blowing the whistle on their own team. The branding of whistleblowers as traitors and disloyal sometimes follows the breach, by the whistleblower, of an oath of confidentiality. This therefore pities collegial loyalty against public interest, a choice that the whistleblower has to make (Bok 3).
An additional nature of whistleblowing is its disrespect for hierarchy, especially when one is a subordinate. Because of the accusations made, whistleblowers are viewed as dissidents and disobedient employees who want nothing but evil for the organization (Bok 3). Wigand’s revelation of the dangerous additives to cigarettes opened B&W to a massive lawsuit, one of which was filed by the attorney general of Mississippi (Brenner). In the eyes of the public, the revelation was illuminating, however, for B&W; the revelations were devastating to the company’s reputation. Besides, the very fact that Wigand was a high-ranking executive gave the revelations impetus. Under normal circumstances, subordinates customarily blow the whistle on organization’s ills. Wigand’s actions set him apart, and are perhaps the reason for the constant threats on his life and those of his wife and children.
The effectiveness of whistleblowing relies on immediacy and the ability of the whistleblower to arouse the audience’s interest. Immediacy in this case refers to present or imminent threats, which the whistleblower must specifically point (Bok 4). Specific pinpointing of the problem helps in assigning responsibility, and therefore the need for accuracy in reporting any evils. Additionally, to arouse the public interest, the information relayed by the whistleblower should be able to receive concerted efforts from the public. Only then will the whistleblower be safe from the rebounding effects of a non-committed public.
In whistleblowing, care should be taken to differentiate it with actions of malice and error. Whistleblowers’ actions have more than once helped in saving lives and improving working conditions. However, it is important to note that whistleblowing eventually puts the life of the whistleblower at risk in addition to other economic and social consequences. Often, the whistleblower loses his/her job. Such actions are however trivial to the peace of mind and moral conviction, even as colleagues and superiors label whistleblowers as traitors
Bok, Sissela. “Whistleblowing and Professional Responsibility.” New York University Education Quarterly, II (Summer 1980):2-7
Brenner, Marie. “The Man who knew too much.” Vanity Fair (1996)