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Speaking out, blowing the whistle on wrongdoing

By Peter Bowden - posted Thursday, 19 January 2023

This author has a contract to write a book on whistleblowing for Ethics Press of the UK. This presentation is an outline of that book, and the research underpinning it. It is presented to this audience as one method of obtaining comments and suggestions on its underlying theses.

The basic underlying thesis is that we all have an obligation to speak out on wrongdoing, The world is full of conflict at the moment, both physical conflict and a conflict in ideas and concepts. The conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States is just one example. But there are many others - gay marriage, abortion, capital punishment, religious rights, managing masks and vaccinations in the Covid 19 pandemic. This book seeks to establish guidelines by which we might decide on such issues. And then to speak out against those versions that we consider wrong. Or versions that would be promoting wrongdoing.

This a much wider definition of whistleblowing than previously published. The most extensively adopted definition of whistleblowing is that of Near and Miceli in 1985. Whistleblowing is "the disclosure by organizational 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".


Miceli, Near and Dworkin's study in 2008 endorses this definition, noting that it "appears to be the most widely used".

This book, however, widens that definition, a definition that is inherent in the title "Speaking Out". The subtitle "Blowing the Whistle on Wrongdoing" asserts that we have an overriding obligation to speak out against wrongdoing, wherever it occurs.

The book, and this paper, is in three parts. The first part we term traditional or institutional whistleblowing – the Miceli and Near definition of whistleblowing. It is limited to one organisation and requires a mechanism to investigate the allegation and protect the whistleblower. For example, an early foray into managing whistleblowing the 2014 book In the Public Interest, Protecting those who speak out identifies that an early objective was to protect whistleblowers. This objective is still valid. Practices have widened and deepened since then. This part seeks to summarise what has happened.

The second part seeks to define wrongdoing. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition of a wrongdoing. The various ethical theories developed by moral philosophers over the centuries at times conflict, one with the other, and therefore do not provide a solid or useful basis on which to make a decision. Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative for instance "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law," is giving the OK to those who argue that we should not wear a covid mask.

Some observers even assert that no universal definition of morality is possible. One definition of wrongdoing is that it is an action against the public interest, but even this generalisation does not cover all wrongs.

This part searches through the moral theories over history, through King Solomon's proverbs, the Asian philosophers, JS Mill and other modern moralists, and the teachings of Jesus Christ (mainly The Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Sermon on the Mount), and comes up with one rule that covers most moral conflict.


Our overriding moral obligation is to help those who need help, and above all not to harm anyone. This rule has near universal applicability. Occasionally we need to inflict a small harm in order to obtain a greater good - budget choices for example - but for the most part it defines the moral decision that has to be made.

This part has one of the most incomprehensible positions taken on whistleblowing. This is the negative opinion on whistleblowing taken by some moral philosophers. An Oxford University Press book on business ethics describes whistleblowing as "characteristic of the worst excesses of Nazi Germany or the Soviet system". It gives six arguments against whistleblowing, including that "it is sneaky, underhand and destroys trust in the workplace".

This issue of destroying trust in the workplace is repeated by many of the major philosophy writers on ethics. It is an unfortunate position to take, for the centre for research and writing on ethical behaviour is in the philosophy departments of our universities.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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