“For the Greatest Good of the Greatest Number”: Examining the Ethical Dilemmas of Whistleblowing

In this fourth post in my series on loyalty, I reflect on the ethical and moral questions surrounding whistleblowing. The key question I explore here has its roots in Michael Sanders’ moral philosophical question: ‘what is the right thing to do?’ I refer to whistleblowing as the calling out of moral or ethical misdemeanors that may have negative impacts on institutional governance and growth or could cause harm to the public good. The act of whistleblowing can be motivated by several infractions including: violation of or an attempt to violate written institutional policies, unethical practices, corruption, abuse of office or conflict between a practice and the whistleblower’s moral code. Whistleblowing therefore tests and raises questions about where an individual’s loyalty should lie: with their institution or with the public. In the sections that follow, I use two case studies to explore the question of whistleblowing in the public and private sectors and highlight some of the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with it.

Case studies

An employee, named Bade, finds out that his company is manipulating the expiry dates of drugs and subsequently selling expired drugs to the public, hence risking a health crisis and increasing the chances of people dying from easily curable infections due to the use of these expired drugs. What should Bade do? Should he report to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)? Should he first approach management to complain about this? Or should Bade just go about his job and stay silent? The second case is that a civil servant, let’s call her Namzam, has found out that her Ministry’s finance director is manipulating figures and carting away millions of Naira of public funds. Should she report to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC)? Should she approach the Permanent Secretary or Minister’s office? Or should she ‘mind her business’, face her job and wait for her retirement in a few years? 

In the two cases above there is a moral imperative to ‘do something’. That imperative may be to act in the public good, self-interest or in the interest of the institution. But there are also practical considerations regarding doing something. Starting with risks, there are possible retaliations, litigation that could arise from revealing what is considered confidential information, threats to life, risks of bodily harm, if the affected party decides to engage the services of thugs, and ultimately the risk of losing one’s job. In responding either for or against what can be considered to be the public interest, there are personal, social, economic and material costs and consequences which eventually inform the action of the potential whistleblower. The scenarios above are therefore difficult to resolve without tensions for the individuals concerned. The key questions here are: what should Bade or Namzam do? What is the moral imperative – that is, where should their loyalties lie, the institution, public or themselves? Below, I try to address these questions in a limited way.

The discussion that follows assumes that the parties concerned have no ill intent, and simply face the moral dilemma as to how to deal with these ethical infractions. Thus, the discussion assumes an altruistic motive and does not address the broad question of motive – although I briefly raise this towards the end of the post. This does not however mean that negative motivations do not play a role in the actions of whistleblowers. Indeed, other writers have pointed out that the act can be influenced by a motive of retaliation, seeking any incentive or reward offered or to avoid punishment for their own wrongdoing.

What should Bade or Namzam do?

One school of thought argues that the right thing to do is to report to the relevant authorities. From this point of view, Bade and Namzam could either explore the internal mechanisms for reporting infractions or report to an external, usually regulatory, institution. This school of thought believes that the act of whistleblowing is not only necessary but an obligation when it is done in the public interest. This school also believes that it is a form of protest to practices that are considered unethical or morally unacceptable. Going by this, there is a case in both examples for blowing the whistle. Another school of thought believes that whistleblowing is inconsistent with loyalty to the institution. This school of thought pitches its argument within the framework of a person’s obligation to their employer, respect for rules governing privileged access to sensitive information and the perceived abuse of such privilege through revealing such information.

In most institutions, employees are required to sign confidentiality agreements. This is even more so for government institutions, where certain types of documentation are covered by official secrets legislation. In addition, these institutions often have internal processes for dealing with misconduct which all staff are expected to follow in the first instance. Thus, when an infraction is observed, the expected first port of call is the institution’s internal mechanism for quality control, discipline, quality service delivery or even audit and corruption. However, this is not always pragmatic if the culprit/suspected individual is the manager of the whistleblower or if the problem is pervasive throughout the institution. To further complicate matters, in some cases, a person is likely to lose their jobs if they do not first explore the internal mechanisms. This amplifies the risk for the individual and reduces the chances that necessary action will be taken in response to a report, especially if the problem is systemic and could affect the institution’s bottom line.

In both examples, there is an explicit public interest problem that should motivate action. In the case of Bade, people could die due to the use of expired drugs, in which case the interest of the public good is that action needs to be taken to stop the practice, and given the systemic nature of the problem, the internal mechanisms may be inadequate to pursue any meaningful change. In the case of Namzam, the public will be deprived of funds that could be used to finance programs or projects if the director’s behavior is not stopped. In both cases, there are questions of how each employee can act while protecting themselves given confidentiality, intellectual property, trade secrets and due process obligations that they have to their employers. This is even more so, considering that Nigeria has a weak whistleblower protection system despite the passage of the Whistle Blowers Protection Bill in 2017 by the National Assembly.

Whistle blowing as public policy

In 2016, Nigeria adopted whistleblowing as an official policy to help tackle corruption in the public sector as applicable legislation was passed the following year. The policy targets a broad range of corrupt practices from abuse of office to theft of public funds. In sum, the purpose of the policy is to enhance accountability, give greater visibility to financial crimes, and increase the recovery of stolen public funds. According to recent news reports, the policy resulted in the recovery of over US$1.4 billion. One of the landmark cases was the recovery of US$43.5 million from an apartment in Lagos which showed that a whistleblower policy as public policy can have some success in addressing corruption. Yet, this raises several questions.

What ethical framework guides the act of ‘telling’? Are there opportunity costs for private individuals beyond firms? What is the motive of the whistleblower? Is it the public interest, and good faith or is it simply the reward money? What if the whistleblower was one of those who contributed to the original crime – say participated in money laundering for example (bank staff have been witnesses of the state in some cases)? Related to this is the question of whether a person could engage in crime with the intention of outing others equally involved, to avoid prison term while cashing in on the reward money? Last is the question of trust.  Is it right to violate rules around copyright and official secrets? What are the limits of whistle blowing in this regard?

While the legal aspects of these questions are addressed within the new pieces of legislation referred to earlier. The laws do not address the issue of loyalty. Thus, while it may be proper and acceptable within the new legal regime to report cases of corruption and other forms of abuse of power that could result in saving of public resources or recovery, the questions of whether it conflicts with loyalty remains to be fully addressed. While there are advantages of having official policies that encourage whistleblowing, there are risks that it could also result in the making of false claims which could significantly erode trust among colleagues and peers in an institution. Thus, careful attention needs to be paid to the wider implications of whistleblowing, especially where an institution’s policy allows confidential reporting.

Conclusion: What’s the moral imperative? 

To conclude, I suggest that whistleblowing is not only permissible but necessary to address the many ills that affect Nigeria’s development, notably corruption. As a country that has consistently performed near the bottom of the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and where corruption has occurred with a high-level of impunity, blowing the whistle offers citizens the opportunity to contribute to the reduction of such acts occurring.

Given the above, I would say that whistleblowing has a utilitarian purpose, to contribute to the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ when properly used. Thus, every act of blowing the whistle could be weighed against the extent to which it is done in good faith, intended to advance the public interest, and whether the motivating factor is the incentive offered, self-preservation or the greater good.

The purpose of government and drug companies is to serve the public good in some form (and I say this being aware of the debates on the ills of pharmaceutical companies). Thus, institutions and their employees should therefore be expected to act in the public interest and their loyalties should lie with the public. Wherever institutions do not align with this idea, it should be reasonable to expect employees to act in the public interest rather than those of their employers.

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One thought on ““For the Greatest Good of the Greatest Number”: Examining the Ethical Dilemmas of Whistleblowing

  1. Omowumi Ogunrotimi

    I find this piece of writing interesting and I see it as one that will generate further debate.  I understand that the focus isn’t on loyalty even though it has some elements of it but I kept thinking of this whistle blowing policy as an incentive driven loyalty which seems inconsistent  with the principle of loyalty.   

    It will be good to understand where the scale tilts when the whistle blower is in a position to prevent the act (whatever that is) but decides to stay aloof and watch quietly primarily to obtain enough evidence to enable him benefit from the whistle blowing incentive.  This is different from participating in the crime or contributing to it. Will this qualify as one done in good faith or for public good? I know this might fit into the motive and intention argument.  Another posa that comes to mind is the parameters to measure all these considerations? Who and what determines all these?

    I have a loud thought on this whistle blower policy. This policy implicitly suggests that loyalty comes with a price tag. 

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