I have always been intrigued by the philosophy of whistleblowing. Today's blog explores the philosophical underpinnings of whistleblowing as a moral act in the context of sexual harassment claims by women in Hollywood and staffers/contacts of government officials.
Whistleblowing is an act of conscience. It’s an important topic right now because so many women decided not to blow the whistle after being sexually harassed. Does this mean they shied away from taking a moral action? No, they acted in their self-interest. Afraid to harm their career potential, they remained silent for many years until the bough broke a couple of months ago.
Let me be clear. Not blowing the whistle was driven by two factors: fear and loathing in Hollywood and in the government and the “bystander effect,” whereby once a woman is sexually harassed in an environment like Hollywood and the government, it’s easier to leave it up to the next person similarly harassed to blow the whistle rather than risking their own career by whistleblowing.
As I have blogged about before, Hollywood has disgraced itself with so many allegations of unreported sexual harassment. The government always disgraces itself so no surprise there.
What exactly is whistleblowing? A broad view of whistleblowing is the disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action. This definition includes whistle-blowers who use internal channels (e.g., a hot line or ombudsperson) or external channels (e.g., government agencies) to blow the whistle.
There are four elements of the whistleblowing process: the whistleblower, the whistleblowing act or complaint, the party to whom the complaint is made, and the organization against which the complaint is lodged. The act might be labeled as one of “dissidence,” somewhat analogous to civil disobedience. It may be seen as disloyal by some but in the public interest by others.
Given that the act of whistleblowing is a personal choice, the key to whether an individual will blow the whistle on wrongdoing is whether the whistle-blower perceives organizational policies are designed to encourage moral autonomy, individual responsibility, and organizational support for whistle-blowers. Or, are they caught in a “you’d better be a team player environment” where one’s career path hangs in the balance.
Clearly, the organizational policies in Hollywood are not designed to promote whistleblowing. Historically it’s been the opposite – a go with the flow mentality was necessary for a woman to build a career. As for the government, there is an ethics law and mechanism to investigate wrongdoing. But, let’s face it. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on. It’s been reported that Congress has paid out more than $17 million for sexual harassment claims over the past 20 years. What’s worse. No one in the public seems to know about it. It’s basically hush money.
Autonomous will is a key element of the morality of whistleblowing. It means to act according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of organizational policies and external forces such as whistleblowing legislation. Autonomous will is the central value in the Kantian tradition of moral philosophy that moral requirements are based on the standard of rationality he called the “Categorical Imperative.”
The Categorical Imperative in Kant’s ethical system is an unconditional moral law that applies to all rational beings and is independent of any personal motive or desire. Therefore, we could say that even if pressure exists in an organization to not report wrongdoing, such as in Hollywood, a rational, moral person will withstand such pressure, regardless of perceived retaliation, because it is a moral requirement to do so. Kant argued that conformity to the Categorical Imperative, and hence to moral requirements themselves, is essential to rational agency. This all sounds good but when the rubber hits the road, it is, understandably, difficult for abused women to come forward and report sexual harassment.
So, here is the key. A moral person who blows the whistle seeks to make a real change in the culture of the organization and institutions linked to oversight of sexual harassment claims. Why didn’t so many come forward and blow the whistle right away? It’s not that they are not moral people. It’s that they figured the game they were playing was consistent with the old boys’ network – go along to get along or forget your career.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 29, 2017. Steve is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. If you have a confidential workplace question, click on the link to submit it.