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1 November 2013 CFA Institute Journal Review

The Responsibility to Lie and the Obligation to Report (Digest Summary)

  1. Jennie I. Sanders, CFA

The act of whistleblowing is morally complex. It can be a morally admirable act undertaken by morally ambiguous agents but can only be fully understood in context. The author examines how the kind of deception sometimes necessary in whistleblowing can be testimony to a larger and more profound truth.

What’s Inside?

Whistleblowing is an ethically complex act that involves several overlapping nuances of obligation, honesty, loyalty, and duty. Whistleblowers are often portrayed as heroes in the news media and popular culture. But a moral dilemma exists in the conflict between loyalty to one’s firm or organization and the liberty to speak out against wrongdoing. In addition, participation in any organization is accompanied by a whole body of at least prima facie moral obligations, many of which are called into question by the act of whistleblowing.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

Practitioners may assume that whistleblowing is always the ethical path, but the author suggests that whistleblowing requires some moral sacrifice. It is not that, in blowing the whistle, the person chooses between an ethical path and an unethical path. Instead, the person chooses between two different ethical paths, both of which are binding, and in choosing one path, the person must act unethically according to the other path. Two case studies are presented.

The first case study the author examines is that of Jeffrey Wigand, the former Brown & Williamson tobacco researcher. In 1993, Wigand blew the whistle on the tobacco industry’s cover-up of research proving the harmfulness of tobacco smoke. Wigand’s actions could be morally justified as producing an overall greater good, or it could be argued that individuals are not bound in any circumstance to honor promises that result in harm to others. Another strand of moral thinking argues that Wigand was in fact unconditionally bound by his promises, irrespective of their consequences; otherwise, the very act of promising is potentially rendered meaningless.

The second case study examined is that of former Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) executive Mark Whitacre. While exposing price-fixing practices, Whitacre systematically lied to his employer, colleagues, and the FBI and embezzled from ADM. The author cites the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argues that there are circumstances when it is appropriate to lie because of the contextual nature of the act of truth telling itself.

The author concludes that whistleblowing is an act of truth telling, in Bonhoeffer’s sense, to the degree that the individual bears the consequences for speaking out against the institutions that demand loyalty in order to serve those who would otherwise suffer.

How Did the Author Conduct This Research?

First, the author discusses the moral conflict between loyalty and liberty and then introduces work presented by Jensen (Journal of Business Ethics 1987). Jensen broke down the ethical tension points of whistleblowing into two general categories: procedural and substantive. Procedural questions relate to such matters as the seriousness of the potential offense and the quality of the whistleblower’s information, as well as such matters as the motives of the whistleblower and the timing of the act. Substantive questions can be more ethically agonizing because one may have an obligation to a variety of players; the decision whether to blow the whistle depends on where one’s priority falls in the mix of loyalties and which loyalties will have to be sacrificed or set aside temporarily.

Two prominent examples of corporate whistleblowing are examined, with attention to the motivations and decisions of the central actors in those cases. The author then considers the position articulated by Bonhoeffer in his examination of the contextual nature of truth telling and the possible appropriateness of lying under certain circumstances. Bonhoeffer wrote the bulk of his work during the Nazi regime, during which he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was imprisoned.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

The moral conflict between loyalty and liberty may be resolved through the search for and discovery of a larger and more profound truth. Bonhoeffer defines genuine truth as a living truth, which we come to know through the careful discernment of God’s will for us in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Serving the larger truth is not without consequences, as the Wigand case reveals. Also, the larger truth is able to distinguish between the corruption of an individual (Whitacre) and that of the organization (ADM) without lessening or negating the culpability of each.

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