Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of  Davis: Paradoxes of Whistleblowing


A whistleblower is someone in an organization who reveals confidential or secret information, and in doing so goes against the wishes of the organization. So whistleblowers violate trust, and they are disloyal, and they violate a prima facie duty to keep things confidential.

What makes their behavior permissible? (Below, W = the whistleblower)


The organization is doing or going to do serious harm to some third party (often the public).

W sees this, and tries to fix it through internal efforts.

W has exhausted internal means to change things (or has run out of time).

Where two more conditions are met, whistleblowing is morally required:

W has evidence sufficient to prove to others that there will be harm.

W has good reason to think that revealing the information will prevent the harm (without doing greater harm, overall).

But why these five? Whatís the MORAL rationale here?

It must be a duty of charity: if thereís little cost and you can prevent serious harm, you should prevent the harm.

THREE PARADOXES  -- Burden, missing harm, & failure

The common thread is that in real-life cases, W doesnít meet the conditions specified.

(1) W normally pays a huge cost! So W does not have a duty here, because of the BURDEN it creates.

(2) W almost never prevents any harm because it happens after the harm, identifying who was in the wrong. (Harm is MISSING)

(3) Even when it happens in time, we just canít find any cases where serious harm was averted.  It usually FAILS to have any effect.

Therefore, we do not in fact meet the conditions required for it to be a duty, or to violate our prima facie duties.


If charity canít justify it, what does? Suppose W cannot really prevent harm. Still, if Wís organization is doing the harm, then W is partly responsible for a moral wrongdoing.

{Editorial comment: basically, the key idea is that silence is consent}

If someone sees that they are contributing to serious harm, they are responsible if they remain silent about it. (If you go along, and donít speak, youíre a guilty party!)

SO, the new rule is this: if W is a voluntary participant and knows information because of that, and W is justified to believe W is contributing to a serious moral wrong because of the participation, and W is correct, then W is morally absolved only by breaking the silence, and W should reveal the wrongdoing.

Here, W is an insider (not a spy!) and has chosen to be involved, and it might be something less than serious harm (e.g., a violation of rights that doesnít otherwise harm) and it doesnít have to be something W can prevent. Since thereís no condition that W can prevent the harm/wrong, thereís no requirement of having sufficient evidence to convince others.



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            Last updated June 4, 2015