09 Nov

Is Whistleblowing a Duty?

Posted By Politybooks


By Emanuela Ceva and Michele Bocchiola

Whistleblowing has become a largely discussed topic mainly as a consequence of such headline cases as those of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. However, the grounds for its justification within political theory and public ethics remain underexplored. Although it is intuitively clear what a whistleblower does – she reports wrongdoings – it remains a matter of great controversy what ‘whistleblowing’ means or consists in, what makes whistleblowing the morally right thing to do, and, more importantly, whether whistleblowing is or can be seen as a duty.

Sometimes, to blow the whistle might be very demanding because of the potential burdensome consequences whistleblowers might face, including retaliation and the loss of their job, up to death threats. In these cases, it seems very difficult to justify anything like a duty of whistleblowing, although to blow the whistle could remain a good and praiseworthy thing to do. Other times, the available evidence on an alleged misdeed might not be strong or clear enough to prove its occurrence, thus making whistleblowing ineffective. And even if whistleblowing turned out to be the right thing to do in specific circumstances, it could disrupt the relations among co-workers and severely compromise the reputation of an institution, thus diminishing its general trustworthiness. Hence, why ought one to blow the whistle?

This book offers a critical examination of these questions and offers a justification of whistleblowing as a duty of office that belongs to a public ethics of organizational accountability. The book argues that any legitimate organization has the duty to establish safe and effective reporting mechanisms to make the practice of whistleblowing possible to counteract such forms of organizational wrongdoing as corruption. Individual officeholders have a duty to blow the whistle only if these mechanisms are in place. In this sense, while unlawful leaks of information remain a controversial issue of personal morality, the book defends the practice of whistleblowing as an organizational duty of public ethics.

Emanuela Ceva is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Pavia.
Michele Bocchiola is Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Pavia. Their new book Is Whistleblowing a Duty? is now available from Polity.