The Case Studies appear in Ethics and the Conduct of Business by John Boatwright J. N. Hooker Carnegie Mellon University October 2003
Case 5.1 Two Whistle-Blowers
Synopsis1 A quality control inspector, Chuck Atkinson, tried to get his superiors at Brown & Root to observe safety regulations in the construction of a nuclear power plant. Frustrated, he finally reported the problem to government regulators. At this point he lost his job and comfortable salary, and he was blacklisted. He was forced at one point to support his family by gathering cans on the highway for scrap aluminum. Brown & Root eventually fixed the safety problems, and Atkinson believes that his activism was the primary reason they did so. He states, “I’ll always sleep at night.” A Difficult Dilemma Whistle-blowing is one of the hardest ethical dilemmas to approach rationally, since the employee tends to be under intense pressure from superiors, coworkers and family. Whistleblowers often pay a high cost, involving not only economic loss but possibly family breakup, loss of friends, and psychological or physical illness. Another difficulty with whistle-blowing is that the factual situation is murky. It is very hard to predict whether the employee’s efforts will bear fruit in the long run, or how severe the reprisals will be. Even if one finds the right ethical principles, it may be impossible to apply them due to the lack of information. Loyalty Interestingly, arguments both for and against whistle-blowing tend to cite loyalty to the firm. One should blow the whistle, rather than simply quit the job, because one owes it to the company to prevent it from going astray. One should not blow the whistle because it would harm the company and one’s fellow employees. A Kantian analysis can help sort out the issues. The Kantian case for loyalty is that disloyalty can normally accomplish its aim only by presupposing loyalty. Atkinson can embarrass Brown & Root into building a safe nuclear plant only if the company hangs together well enough to build a plant. A company or other organization can hang together only if its members support the organization, sometimes by making sacrifices, and sometimes by overlooking ethical lapses. Yet when does loyalty require sacrifice, and when does it require ethical compromise? 1
We focus on the first of the two whistle-blowing stories, since the second deals primarily with attorneyclient privilege and requires specialized knowledge of legal ethics.
Sacrifice. If the viability of an organization requires the heroic sacrifice of its members at critical junctures, then its members are obligated to make this sacrifice, when the occasion arises, if they rely on the organization to accomplish their purposes. This sort of logic may apply to members of emergency rescue teams, a police department or armed forces. However, if the organization’s success normally does not require extreme sacrifice, then loyalty may be observed in more moderate ways. This seems to be the case with a business corporation. So a Kantian loyalty argument does not seem to require Atkinson to make the sacrifice he did, although other arguments may impose a stronger obligation. Compromise. Does loyalty obligate Atkinson to help cover up the safety violations? Let’s start with the more basic question as to whether ethics can require one to make ethical compromises. In a sense, it can. An act that is wrong when considered in isolation may be right in the context of a larger situation. To use an old example, lying in general is wrong, but lying to the Nazi Gestapo to protect innocent people in hiding is right. The test is whether one’s rationale for acting is generalizable. Lying to conceal the location of innocent people is generalizable, since it achieves its purpose even if everyone lies for this purpose.2 There is no evidence, however, that the viability of construction firms depends on covering up safety...