Colloquium: Whistleblowing, loyalty and group responsibility

A central fact about whistleblowing is that it prima facia involves a conflict of duties. Debates about whistleblowing have long centered on explaining this conflict as one of conflicting loyalties; for example, loyalty to an organization and loyalty to other groups, such as a local community. The literature addresses issues such as the amount of loyalty owed to an organization, or if whistleblowing in fact counts as a violation of loyalty. I will argue that these debates are misconceived.

After a survey of the definition of whistleblowing, and the presentation of a pair of test cases, I turn to arguments in Duska’s oft-anthologized “Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty”. Duska argues that loyalty is completely inapplicable in cases of whistleblowing, thus making whistleblowing obligatory. After a brief survey of responses to Duska, I argue first that his arguments are based on a demonstrably incorrect conception of the role of business in society, which vitiates his arguments insofar as whistleblowing is a question of a conflict of loyalties.

But I will then argue that there are good reasons to think that whistleblowing is not a matter of loyalty. First, loyalty itself is not a particularly well delineated ethical concept. Secondly, even if we could clearly set out a notion of loyalty, claims on loyalty are in most cases simply too weak to do the work apportioned to them.

My alternative proposal is that situations of the sort involving whistleblowing often lead to a conflict between a duty to prevent harm to self and a duty to prevent harm to others. This conflict is aggravated by the diffusion of responsibility in a corporate setting coupled with the well-known phenomenon of the punishment of whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are thus fully correct in feeling a conflict of duty. Nor, I will conclude, are such conflicts easily resolved.