The Ethics of Whistleblowing

09 July 2015

This week we're asking about The Ethics of Whistleblowing -- with Edward Snowden – one of world’s most famous whistleblowers. Mr. Snowden joined us from Moscow in front of a live audience at Stanford University. Not only was the program recorded for radio broadcast, we also made a video of the event, with a lively question and answer period that follows the radio portion of the interview. It takes you even deeper in to Snowden's thought process. Again, this extended discussion cannot be heard on the radio. You can also check out several excerpts from the event here.

There can be no denying that whistleblowers may sometimes have the potential to do us all a great service.  Whistleblowers are willing to stand up, sometimes at great cost to themselves, and shine the light of truth into the dark corners where governments and corporations operate in secret.  Though they are are often hounded by the law,  they often are, I believe, among the true heroes of democracy.

Unfortunately, I do not think it is as morally plain and simple as saying that a would be whistleblower is a clear-cut hero – no ifs, ands or buts.   I wouldn’t want to deny that things that governments and corporations do in the shadows deserve to be exposed.  Still,  I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of solitary individuals deciding for themselves which government secrets to keep and which ones to leak.   That’s a recipe for chaos.

But I am also uncomfortable with saying that the government has the right to engage in massive, warrantless, secret surveillance of ordinary citizens, without adequate oversight or input from the public.   That’s a recipe for a police state, unchecked by anything except its own whims.   We’ve gotten ourselves into something close to that with the Patriot Act and the NSA surveillance programs that it supposedly authorized.

It may be that some semblance of sense and moderation is about to break out, even among once ardent fans of the Patriot Act.   Even as I write these words, Congress is hotly debating whether to reauthorize the act, in whole or in part, or to let it expire.    But the very reason that we are having this debate at all, I might add, is the courage and self-sacrifice of Edward Snowden.  So chalk one up for the benefits of whistleblowing.   So chalk another one up for those with the courage to blow the whistle.

Still, as flawed as it may be, there’s one thing that can be said for the Patriot Act. It’s the law  -- voted on by both houses of Congress and signed by the President  -- who, last time I checked, were all actually empowered by the public through elections to make law on behalf of us all.     And as the law, it deserves respect.

I can hear someone object to the this line of reasoning that our duty to respect the law only goes so far.   The law doesn’t deserve respect if it is Ill-conceived and unjust or if it’s so opaque that not even supporters know what it really means or if it makes a mockery of the very idea of oversight or if it is cynically used as a pretext for doing things in secret that the people – who are ultimate masters in a democracy -- would never stand for, if they knew what was really up. 

But I am genuinely torn on this point.  On the one hand,  I think it would be hard to estimate the importance of respect for the rule of law.   Without that, you don’t have democracy.  You’ve got anarchy.    But I also don’t want to confuse respect for the law, with a fetish for the law. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted.  You have to challenge the law.

Part of me wants to say that when you do feel compelled to challenge the law, you should always do so through lawful means, when possible.    At the same time, I acknowledge that sometimes the law may swear you to secrecy, on pain of prosecution.  And that fact alone may cow everybody in the system into silence.  In that scenario respect for the law may require too much.  It may require of you that you simply shut up and become just another cog in the machine.

It seems to me extraordinarily difficult to strike the right balance here.  Nobody wants to be a criminal and stand outside the law.  But it takes no moral courage whatsoever to stand by silently, to go along to get along.  This is the dilemma that many whistleblowers face.  Most whistleblowers are patriots, not radical revolutionaries.  That’s why they’re on the inside and in a position to blow the whistle to begin with.  Most would love to work within the law, within the system.   But sometimes they feel they simply can’t.  And I think it takes great moral courage to out the very government whose secrets you have a sworn duty to uphold.  But sometimes a higher duty calls.

The whistleblower takes on great risk, though, in responding to the call of what they take to be a higher duty.  What if their actions end up doing great damage to the country they claim to love?  How can someone be so cock-fired sure they’re doing the right thing – especially when the law forbids it and when peers and superiors working in the trenches refuse to see things the same way?    But that’s the risk you take when you decide to blow the whistle. You’re a traitor if you get it wrong.  You’re a hero if you get it right.   

Bottom line:  whistleblowing is not for the faint of heart!

Comments (7)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I do not KNOW whether Ed

I do not KNOW whether Ed Snowden is a traitor or a hero. My thinking is that he is neither, but, that assessment is not based upon the Patriot Act or any other instrument of human-crafted legislation. I suspect that as a rational, thinking human being, Mr. Snowden must have fully considered and accepted the consequences of his actions. He may have agonized over his decision for a very long time-but, he knew full well that life as he once knew it would be forfeit. Apparently, he was ready to what he had to do to get his point across. Ergo, he is now in Russia (?)---or somewhere else, on the lam. It may always be arguable that the laws of any true democracy are duly conceived and enacted for the common good. We, as beneficiaries in democratic process, sanction that process by exerting our right to vote for the legislators who are its actual participants. And so, participatory democracy is a somewhat misleading phrase. We the voters are, more realistically, gamblers. We cast our ballots, with the sure and present hope that those we elect are best suited to ensure that our welfare is safeguarded. But it is all a leap of faith, or better, a roll of the dice. Because we are like the man who has TWO watches: he is never truly sure what time it is.'s picture


Wednesday, July 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I do know that Ed Snowden is

I do know that Ed Snowden is a hero.
I am actually puzzled and deeply disturbed by the attitude of supposed Kantians like Ken.  I am a Utilitarian but I took that oath.  Even as a Utilitarian I take that seriously.  I made a promise to defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic.  Every member of the armed services takes that oath, as well as so-called intelligence people.  Why is it so hard for Kantians to see that this matters, and matters deeply.
Ken, of course Ed had to do what he did.  Yes, it was a matter of moral duty.  He promised to defend the constitution and he did.  Everyone around him had the same obligation but only he lived up to it.  That shows a tremendous moral failure that no one in a position of responsibility seems to take their oath of office seriously.
Why do Kantians want to defer to a low level law as the relevant principle, when it is obvious to any neutral observer that what matters is the higher principle of one's oath?  Ken asked who is Ed to do this.  He is a human being who promised to do that sort of thing.  What really matters is why do Kantians not understand that a oath to defend the constitution is a powerful thing, a deep obligation that almost no one lives up to.
The armed forces is filled with people who know things that mean what they are doing is illegal.  They swore an oath and multiple international agreements (does "Nuremburg" mean anything to you?) have affirmed that the individual has a moral and now legal obligation to stop any illegal activity they see even if it is their own officers who are the criminals.
Why can't Kantians take this oath seriously?

Joel Rice's picture

Joel Rice

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Wow!!! Mr. Snowden exhibited

Wow!!! Mr. Snowden exhibited a profound intellect and deep understanding. I was not at all prepared to find myself admiring him. I am embarrased that my country forces him to live in exile.

Guest's picture


Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

We can argue whether Snowden

We can argue whether Snowden is a traitor or not but we have to admit that he's brave enough to protect his point of view no matter what.You can hate him for what he's doing but he deserves respect for being so principled. 

inggil's picture


Sunday, August 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I do not KNOW whether Ed

I do not KNOW whether Ed Snowden is a traitor or a hero. My thinking is that he is neither, but, that assessment is not based upon the Patriot Act or any other instrument of human-crafted legislation.

Or's picture


Sunday, August 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Doesn?t this look a little

Doesn?t this look a little bit like a Robin Hood-esque story? I can?t look into this matter without thinking that Snowden is either being seen as the good guy who is considered a hero because he is dismantling the bad guy?s plan, or as the bad guy because he?s acting against the law. What is lacking is digging further into the question of ?does this law have any meaning when the other side ? the NSA - is also acting wrongfully?? To me, it?s either ?all of this ?both the NSA and Snowden?s actions - is very bad? or Snowden?s work is legitimate. But to argue that his activity was unlawful and not mention the context of the unlawfulness, the fact that clearly the other side?s actions were unconstitutional, does seem a bit odd.
Snowden is not like a ?normal? criminal in the sense that what he did was so that the population could know of practices that they might deem wrongful. So can the law, the way it is, apply to him? In fact, can law as an argument even be used here when there is clearly no regard for law (or privacy) on the other side of the issue? Shouldn?t the philosophical question regarding whistleblowing be freed from arguments against the law or pro-law, say, ?he is wrong in what he did because he acted against the law?? Because the other side isn?t exactly following the law either. What exactly are we basing our argument pro- and against whistleblowing on? Shouldn?t these arguments be independent from considerations of law?
For philosophical consideration of the act of whistleblowing itself, I could entertain concerns like ?Snowden has taken my autonomy away from me by informing me of something I may not want to have been informed about.? Of course the other side also removes autonomy by keeping its practices secret, and so on. Then, one could argue: ?he decided for me; that is a paternalistic approach to the rest of the citizens and thus wrong, etc.? Or ?what he did is a decision like that of a nurse hiding from a patient who has a terminal illness that he has said illness because the nurse thinks it would be best for the patient not to know.The situations are similar in that both involve an external party deciding for a person what he or she should know.? And so the conversation could develop. But Snowden?s actions cannot be philosophically considered by a simple call to legality or lack thereof.
It?s also not about saying ?Snowden is a traitor/hero because he revealed x.? What does being a traitor/hero have to do with this matter? It seems like a quick judgment or at least a completely different question to me - what makes a hero, what makes a traitor -, one independent from whether he acted wrongfully or not.  

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, April 2, 2018 -- 9:54 AM

May we agree that several

May we agree that several things have happened since July of 2015? Those events and circumstances could have gone differently-that's the reality of space, time and synchronicity. But, are we any better off, or are things worse? A large portion of the American public appears to be almost as pessimistic as I have been for the last year or so. Polls show younger folks are the most disillusioned and disappointed. Many who are experts in matters of history and demography say: it is mostly cyclical; all things pass and return on a recurring basis-you may count on that. I do not recall what finally happened with the Patriot Act, or if anything happened at all. I must say that I do not believe there is much ado right now about 'forming a more perfect union'. I remarked (in 2015)that a man who has one watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure. This is true, even if the man with the one watch has a faulty one. I have a watch that, when purchased, was a source of some pride-of-ownership-not a Rolex, mind you, or a Patek-but, a nice Citizen eco-drive. It has lain dormant in my dresser drawer for ten or fifteen years. I no longer have a need for it, nor the pride-of-ownership it once symbolized. I write philosophy and offer commentary on many ideas and notions that interest me. And, I try to understand those which, as a practical matter, do not.

Sometimes it all seems hopeless, yet, it continues to capture my interest. I suppose this is why I continue to educate myself. And live the best life I can muster...Keep on doing what you and PT do, professor. This is the only game in town.