Sissela Bok On Whistle Blowing

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Sissela Bok on Whistle Blowing


Whistle blowing is informing on illegal and unethical practices in the workplace. It is becoming increasingly common as employees speak out about their ethical concerns at work. It can have disastrous consequences for the individual, as well as threatening the survival of the organization that is being complained about. In this issue, philosopher Sissela Bok asserts that although blowing the whistle is often justified, it does involve dissent, accusations, and a breach of loyalty to the employer. But on the other hand, Robert A. Larmer, an associate professor of philosophy, argues that attempting to stop illegal or unethical company activities may be the highest type of company loyalty an employee can display. (Kant 54)


Under what circumstances, if any, is whistle blowing morally justified? Bock has argued that whistle blowing is never justified because employees have absolute obligations of confidentiality and loyalty to the organization for which they work. People who argue this way see no difference between employees who reveal trade secrets by selling information to competitors, and whistle blowers who disclose activities harmful to others. This position is similar to another held by some business people that the sole obligation of corporate executives is to make a profit for the stockholders. If this were true, corporate executives would have no obligations to the public. However, no matter what one's special obligation, one is never exempt from the general obligations we have to our fellow human beings. One of the most fundamental of these obligations is not to cause harm to others. Corporate executives are no more exempt from this obligation than other people. Corporations in democratic societies are run with the expectations that they will function in ways that are compatible with the public interest. Corporations in democratic societies also run with the expectations that they will not only obey the law governing their activities, but will not do anything that undermines basic democratic processes, such as bribing public officials. In addition to having the obligation to make money for stockholders, corporate executives have the obligation to see that these obligations are complied within an organization. They also have obligations to the company's employees, for example to maintain a safe working place. If corporate executives fail to fulfill obligations of the types mentioned, then that creates the need for whistle blowing. (Komp 90)

Just as the special obligations of corporate executives to stockholders cannot override their more fundamental obligations to others, the special obligations of employees to employer cannot override their more fundamental obligations. Such as obligations of confidentiality and loyalty cannot take precedence over the fundamental duty to act in ways that prevent unnecessary harm to others. Agreements to keep something secret have no moral standing unless the secret is itself morally justifiable. For example no person can have an obligation to keep a secret of a plot to murder someone, because murder is an immoral act. It is for this reason also that employees have a legal obligation to report an employer who has committed ...
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