Whistle-blower: Hero v. Traitor

The Expectation of Loyalty

It is often assumed that there is a prima facie duty of loyalty toward ones employers and coworkers. Prima facie duties are duties that we see at first glance. They're fairly weak obligations, and they might be overridden by other, more pressing, obligations. Nevertheless, there is an expectation that employees will put the good of the organization first. They'll do their best work because that's what they're paid to do, and they won't do things which would be a risk to their jobs or to the organization's wellbeing. They will keep business matters private because not doing so could hurt the image and profits of the organization.

This expectation is one of the reasons that Davis begins his argument with talk of justification. The whistle blower must have some strong justification for their action because they're doing something that they otherwise shouldn't do. The whistle blower is a person who breaks ranks. They betray their team. They are doing something that they shouldn't. If they're going to do any of these things, then they'd better have a strong justification. 

The Complicity Theory

Davis finds this justification in the employee's complicity with the act. He argues, in short, that it is permissible to blow the whistle if your organization is going to use something that you've worked on to cause serious moral wrong-doing. In a situation like this one, your work is contributing to the harm, and this is what makes it permissible to blow the whistle. The complicity theory is supposed to be better than the standard theory because it allows a whistle blower to speak out even if they can't prevent a harm (as was the case for Roger Boisjoly), and whistle-blowing is transformed from a moral obligation into a superlative action. You've gone above and beyond the call of duty instead of merely doing your duty. 

This might make it easier for a whistleblower to justify their decision to blow the whistle ("Well, if I don't do it then I'll be directly responsible for the results."), but it also looks like it weakens their obligation to blow the whistle ("Sure, it's permissible, but I don't have to do it.). According to the standard theory that Davis maps out, if all 5 of the qualifications are met, the employee has an obligation to speak out. This is something that Davis deliberately leaves out of the complicity theory, and he does so because the employee is facing a huge risk if they blow the whistle on their employer. They're virtually certain to be discriminated against, demoted, ostracized, or fired. 

Permission v. Duty?

What should we make of this switch? It is certainly true that whistle blowers are going to face some adversity. When your opponent is a business entity that wants to protect their interests, they are likely to cover the matter up, sweep it under the rug, and sweep the problematic element right out the door. Even if the company doesn't fire you, you're likely to face an unfriendly work environment. This is probably bad for your future employment. Your family will suffer for your righteousness, while strangers might benefit. There are obviously penalties when one acts outside of the normal parameters of the business/employee relationship, but does this mean that it is only permissible for employees to blow the whistle? 

Maybe we should make another distinction here. It might be the case that it is only permissible for regular employees to blow the whistle on their employer's activities, but what about the professionals employed by a company that is engaged in serious moral wrongdoing? It seems that they might face a different sort of obligation than the one that Davis points out. They have an obligation that goes beyond their business and personal obligations. They also have to weigh the good of the profession and society at large into their calculation. Outrage would probably be the right emotion to attach to the revelation that an architect or an engineer knew that a bridge was going to fall in adverse weather conditions or that a car was going to burn if it were to take a rear-impact at low speeds or that a very expensive space shuttle carrying several highly trained people was going to explode on lift-off. These sorts of revelations happen every once in a while, and they're always damaging to the entire profession as well as to the people directly affected by the bridge, car, or space shuttle. People lose trust in the institutions that they previously held in high esteem. 

Is this enough to motivate a strong and binding moral obligation to blow the whistle even if it might cost you your livelihood?

Hero v. Traitor?

This dichotomy is prevalent in the controversy over whistle blowers. They're painted as discontented traitors who tattle on their bosses out of spite. This is an odd representation of people who are taking enormous risks to stop something bad from happening. To be sure, there are people who are discontented traitors who want to tattle on their employers without a good reason. These folks, though, are going to be in the minority. 

Most whistle blowers are blowing the whistle even though they know that they could keep quiet and not make a fuss. Probably not all that many people would ever know that they didn't speak when they could have. Probably not all that many people will be hurt by their organization's activities. Roger Boisjoly could have towed the party line and said that he was uncertain whether the Challenger would explode on lift-off. Other engineers on the team were less willing to stand up and admit that they had made the wrong call. As Arnie Thompson said in the video clip, they didn't know that it was definitely going to happen. The shuttles had been using the same O-ring system for years without any serious problems. All they had were charts. They didn't have facts.

Should Boisjoly have kept his mouth shut when he was asked whether he agreed with the management's decision to send the shuttle up that day? Would it have been permissible for him to have done so? 

The answers to those questions should tell us a great deal about how we really feel about whistle blowers and whistle blowing. If it would have been acceptable for him to stay quiet, then perhaps we think that it is only permissible for him to blow the whistle. If it's not permissible for him to keep quiet, then it's likely that some combination of factors leads us to think that he has an obligation to do so.