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Why Whistle-blowing Can Be a Virtuous Act

Fairness and Loyalty Effects on the Morality of Blowing the Whistle

Imagine you’re thinking about blowing the whistle on your employer. You will face a moral quandary: Is reporting misdeeds an act of heroism or betrayal?

It makes sense that whistle-blowing brings these two moral values, fairness and loyalty, into conflict. Doing what is fair or just (e.g., promoting an employee based on talent alone) often conflicts with showing loyalty (e.g., promoting a longstanding but unskilled employee).

Although fairness and loyalty are both basic moral values, some people prioritize one over the other. The loyalty issue often wins the day because it is prized so highly in the workplace.

In reality, neither fairness nor loyalty alone can predict whistle-blowing. However, as one study at Northwestern University has found, the way people trade one value against another — the difference between people’s fairness and loyalty scores — did. People who valued fairness more than loyalty expressed greater willingness to blow the whistle, whereas people who valued loyalty more than fairness were more hesitant.

To test whether such whistle-blowing decisions are susceptible to manipulation, the researchers asked 293 participants across two experiments about their willingness to blow the whistle, but first they had them write short essays on the importance of fairness or the importance of loyalty. They then compared whistle-blowing scores between these two groups and found that participants who wrote about fairness were more willing to blow the whistle than those who wrote about loyalty.

Fairness and loyalty are two ethical values that compete in a whistleblowing situation. But it doesn’t end there. Whistleblowing can be seen as a moral act if the intentions of the whistleblower is to right a perceived wrong.

I would add to the analysis responsibility and accountability because these values underlie the act of blowing the whistle. Responsible people blow the whistle when they believe more harm than good will occur if the whistleblower stays silent. A virtuous whistleblower acts in an ethical manner if she truly believes a responsibility exists to protect the public interest. Such a person is willing to accept the consequences of her actions. i.e., she is accountable for her actions.

Loyalty is a powerful ethical value and may inhibit a would-be-whistleblower from coming forward. There are numerous examples of where loyalty trumped higher ethical values, such as honesty and integrity, with the result being that financial fraud was not disclosed (e.g. financial frauds at Enron and WorldCom) with devastating results for shareholders.

Was Edward Snowden a hero or a villain? He blew the whistle out of a sense of protecting the public interest, not for a reward. He went about it in a questionable manner but given what we know now about his act, many have concluded he acted with good intentions.

On a broader scale we could ask: What is our responsibility as human beings when we don’t engage in whistleblowing in unacceptable situations? In what situations would it be ethically justified not to blow the whistle?

Certain steps should be taken before blowing the whistle.

  1. Have I discussed the matter with my superiors and, if necessary, higher-ups in the organization?
  2. Are there any alternatives to whistleblowing such as leaving my job? Does this relieve me of my moral obligations?
  3. Should I report the wrongdoing to a regulatory authority, such as the Securities Exchange Commission under the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act or the Federal False Claims Act?
  4. When rewards are available for blowing the whistle, how does this influence my intent to blow the whistle?
  5. Am I prepared to accept the consequences of my actions wherever it takes me.

Blowing the whistle under the guise of wanting a big payday when a reward exists is unethical. The reward should be a by-product of the action. Blowing the whistle can be a righteous act and as such should be driven by one’s internal sense of having acted in accordance with moral one’s beliefs.

John Henry Newman, a famous British clergyman, once said: “Virtue is its own reward, and brings with it the truest and highest pleasure; but if we cultivate it only for pleasure's sake, we are selfish, not religious, and will never gain the pleasure, because we can never have the virtue.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 26, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at