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Professor Maeve Cooke, MRIA: Whistle Blowing

17 April 2015

Professor Maeve Cooke MRIA is a Professor at the School of Philosophy in UCD. Her interests include: critical social theory; law, religion, politics and philosophy; autonomy, ideology and power.

Whistle-blowing has become an important part of life in contemporary democracies. Apparently coined in the 1970s, the term is relatively new. But in its basic form, the practice is as old as human society itself. As the disclosure of wrong-doing within an organisation, typically by a member of that organisation, it has played a role wherever men and women have formed stable associations. Those who “blow the whistle” seek to alert attention and call a halt to perceived wrong-doing. Their reasons for doing so are primarily ethical: they see the actions in question as wrong from the point of view of what is ethically good. A distinguishing mark of whistle-blowing is that its ethical criticisms appeal to the stated values of the association in question.

Why then are whistle-blowers so often reviled, abused and punished for their actions rather than applauded? Even today, when the more positive word has replaced earlier negative terms such as “informing”, whistle-blowers rarely benefit from their ethically motivated actions; indeed, they frequently suffer loss of employment and the status and income that go with it; criticism, even abuse, from their peers; debts resulting from legal fees; break-up of personal relationships; psychological trauma and other hardships.

Every human society is an ethical order in the sense that it serves to further the well-being of its members. Well-being is a matter of living well in an ethical sense, of living a life oriented towards what is good. Even in contemporary democracies, characterised by a plurality of conceptions of the good, where the capacity for independent ethical judgement is prized, there is a shared commitment to certain core ethical values such as human dignity, integrity and accountability. Thus, those in charge of legislating, governing and administrating the ethical order cannot be indifferent regarding ethical questions. Rather, they must take seriously the ethical challenges presented by whistle-blowers and offer protection while assessing their merits. Often they do not.

One reason for this is the discrepancy between the ethical sensibilities motivating individual whistle-blowers and the ethical sensibilities of their peers, and a corresponding gap in ethical judgements. When asked what prompted them to disclose wrong-doing within particular private or public bodies, whistle-blowers often appeal to a sense of self as an ethical person that propelled them to act, despite knowing that their acts are likely to have a harsh impact on their personal lives, financially, socially and psychologically. We could say that whistle-blowers want to be seen, by themselves and others, as persons concerned to act on their conscience, irrespective of consequences for their personal lives. The term “conscience” evokes the idea of an ethical sensibility located within the individual human subject that is formative of identity: an “inner voice” that cannot be silenced without loss of integrity. The word reminds us that ethics is not a set of abstract principles on which we decide to act in particular instances; rather it is a way of seeing the world that shapes and forms our identity; it is part of the very fabric of our being. We can see, therefore, that conscience has both an internal and an external dimension. While it is an “inner voice”, located within the self, it is not something purely internal to the self: it also has an external, public dimension, for to be a self means to engage in the world with other selves; it is to express oneself publicly, in interaction with others. Since conscience is formative of the self, it is an intrinsic part of the self’s engagement with others.

However, the voice of conscience as it speaks to particular individuals may not be in tune with the ethical judgements of their colleagues, of public office holders, of representatives of state institutions, perhaps even of their own family and friends. While a discrepancy of this kind occurs in many situations, in the case of whistle-blowing it has an additional legal aspect: there is a gap not just in ethical judgements but also in attitude towards the prevailing laws. Whistle-blowers challenge those who see themselves as beyond the law or they may challenge particular interpretations of the law, its content or its implementation.

Importantly, whistle-blowers do not challenge the rule of law itself. Rather, they seek to improve it by calling private or public bodies to account ethically, and they do so by appealing to the stated values of the bodies themselves. This appeal to a general “we”, be it the commonality of a particular corporation, organization or of society as a whole, explains why whistle-blowing is not informing or snitching. It is precisely because modern democracies are committed to rule by ethically motivated laws – laws that are conducive to the well-being of each of their members – that we who share this commitment must welcome the challenges of whistle-blowers. Even if it turns out that their disclosures are unconvincing, their interventions must be taken seriously, and protected, and given as fair and open a hearing as possible.

About This Series

This opinion series explores what ethics currently means to Irish researchers across a variety of disciplines and was led by the RIA Committee for Ethical, Political, Legal and Philosophical Studies and was a contribution to President Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in 2014/15.

The views and opinions expressed by authors are their own and do not reflect the position of the Academy, but are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse Academy Committee membership.

Ethics Initiative

The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative is the second in a series of public seminars and reflections that President Higgins is holding during his term of office. This series aims to explore, throughout all aspects of society, the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of living ethically.

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