The Humanist Dilemma: To Blow or Not to Blow: The Complex Calculation of Whistle-Blowing

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Resignation: It seems as though every day there’s news of someone resigning in protest over what’s going on where they work (particularly if they work at the White House). When the anonymous New York Times editorial came out, many said if the person had been honorable, they would have signed their name and/or resigned rather than hang out the dirty laundry without identifying themselves.

As I see it, if everyone who disapproved of what’s going on in dysfunctional organizations were to resign, there would be no one left but the swamp creatures, merrily doing whatever they pleased without interference from more ethical colleagues.

I can understand reaching a point where you feel your efforts are futile and the alternatives self-destructive, but shouldn’t we be lauding anonymous whistle-blowers and others who hang in there trying to steer things in a different direction rather than either playing along or abandoning ship?

—Should They Stay or Should They Go?


Dear Stay or Go,

I’m inclined to agree with you. If someone worked in a religious organization and witnessed extensive abuse and cover-ups, would it be better to quit, transfer to a less corrupt parish, or stay and try to right the wrong—which might include anonymously alerting the media about what’s going on? Should teachers who see children being abused, neglected, or discriminated against by their administration transfer to another school or leave teaching—or bring the problem to the attention of the proper authorities, without revealing their identity if that would cost them their job? Should brokers continue to promote bad investments or impossible mortgages to people who can’t understand or afford them—or should they blow the whistle on such practices while continuing to guide their clients as ethically as possible?

It’s an unfortunate fact that identified whistle-blowers more often than not become martyrs—and they may not even achieve anything positive by going public with their stories. Although speaking out anonymously is a last resort (because anonymous reports aren’t nearly as credible), it’s better than just going along or ducking out. It’s also unfortunate that anyone who leaves, voluntarily or otherwise, and then speaks out is labeled “disgruntled” and their testimony is dismissed as sour grapes.

Doing something is preferable—and more ethical—than doing nothing. Resigning can be powerful if reasons are given and the act attracts enough attention to spur corrective measures. But speaking out, however truthfully and accurately, can make people pariahs in their fields and often carries with it the stigma of having given up. And while most who resign are soon out of sight and out of mind, as Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic) observed, “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.”

Every individual who finds themselves in a compromising situation has to decide how much they’re willing to risk (i.e., career, reputation, income, friends, family, etc.) and how much might be gained by the various courses available to them, and then decide which to take. Hopefully, they’ll take some action, even if it’s anonymous. While some may call that cowardly, I call it brave—far braver than those who remain silent and compliant, whether they stay or go.