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examine the role that whistle-blowing can play for high-level management

examine the role that whistle-blowing can play for high-level management

examine the role that whistle-blowing can play for high-level management


The Responsibility to Lie and the Obligation to Report

Bonhoeffer’s ‘‘What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?’’ And the Ethics of Whistleblowing

Scott R. Paeth

Published online: 23 January 2013

� Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract This article is an examination of the moral

complexity of the act of whistleblowing in the context of

corporate corruption. Whistleblowing may be a morally

admirable act underataken by morally ambiguous agents,

but can only be fully understood in context. Using German

theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essay ‘‘What Does It

Mean to Tell the Truth?’’ This essay will examine how the

kind of deception sometimes necessary in whistleblowing

cases can be testimony to a larger and more profound truth.

Keywords Whistleblowing � Jeffrey Wigand � Mark Whitacre � Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Whistleblowing is an ethically complex act that involves

several different overlapping understandings of obligation,

honesty, loyalty, and duty. 1

While whistleblowers are

often—with justification—portrayed as being heroic fig-

ures in the news media and popular culture, the decision to

engage in whistleblowing is not an act of pure unvarnished

moral righteousness. Rather, it involves the evaluation of

competing moral claims on one’s identity and action, and a

decision to act in ways that honor one set of moral obli-

gations at the expense of others. That this decision is often

justifiable on the basis of the larger question of the public

interest does not make it any less morally ambiguous from

the point of view of the person undertaking the act. 2


Lars Landblom (2007) argues:

The debate on morality whistleblowing centers on the

conflict between the duty of loyalty to the firm or

organization in which one works and the liberty to

speak out against wrongdoing. This is the moral

dilemma of whistleblowing. This dilemma comes

about because we tend to think, like Beauchamp and

Bowie, that ‘‘[e]mployees have both legal and moral

obligations to be loyal to their employers’’ (1988,

p. 262), and simultaneously hold that we should be

free to do our part in stopping immoral or dangerous

practices. (Landblom 2007, p. 415)

Yet, the conflict between loyalty and liberty represents only

one dimension of the larger set of moral conflicts inherent in

the decision to blow the whistle on corrupt corporate

practices. Participation in any organization is constituted by

a whole body of at least prima facie moral obligations,

which are called into question by the whistleblowing act.

Jensen (1987) breaks down the ethical tension points in

whistleblowing into two general categories: Procedural and

substantive (1987, p. 322). Procedural questions relate to

matters such 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

S. R. Paeth (&) DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA


1 One challenge in any discussion of whistleblowing is defining the

term itself. While no definition is perfect, for the purposes of this

paper, I will assume the definition articulated by Jubb (1999):

‘‘Whistleblowing is a deliberate non-obligatory act of disclosure,

which gets onto public record and is made by a person who has or had

privileged access to data or information of an organization, about

non-trivial illegality or other wrongdoing whether actual, suspected or

anticipated which implicates and is under the control of that

organization, to an external entity having potential to rectify the

wrongdoing.’’ 2

For discussion of some of the ethical tensions inherent in the act of

whistleblowing, see Landblom (2007), Jensen (1987), Larmer (1992),

and Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran (2005).


J Bus Ethics (2013) 112:559–566

DOI 10.1007/s10551-012-1557-2

timing of the act. Procedural questions may be thought of in

essentially prudential terms—they deal with judgments as

to the effectiveness of the whistleblowing act in a particular

time and place, in light of a particular set of circumstances.

Substantive questions, as Jensen notes, can be consid-

erably more ethically agonizing:

A nurse, for example, agonizes over whether to blow the

whistle on what she feels are seriously inadequate

practices in her health care unit of the hospital. She

realizes an obligation to the patients, to her peers, to her

supervisors, to the medical profession, to the hospital

administration, to her own self-worth, to the general

public, and to ‘‘the truth.’’ How can she balance all of

these loyalties and commitments when they begin to

conflict? Usually they exist together with no problem,

but conditions warranting whistleblowing usually mean

that some of these loyalties are now battling each other.

Which will take precedence in that particular situation?

Where in that mix of loyalties does one’s priority fall?

Which loyalties will have to be sacrificed, or at least set

aside temporarily? (Jensen 1987, p. 324)

Ethical analysis of moral conflicts is often resolved either

by consequentialist appeals to the greatest good, or by

attempts to rank moral obligations according to some

understanding of their relative weight on the moral scale.

As important as such attempts are, however, they tend to

obscure the tragic dimension of moral conflicts. In other

words, by attempting to treat the conflict as a problem

capable of a rationally consistent and universalizable

solution, they fail to give proper attention to what gives

rise to the conflict in the first place—the tension between

two deeply held and subjectively binding sets of obliga-

tions, neither of which can be let go by the agent without

some moral sacrifice. It is not that, in blowing the whistle,

one chooses between an ethical path and an unethical path,

but rather one chooses between two different ethical paths,

both of which one experiences as binding, and in choosing,

one must act unethically according to one of those paths.

In order to analyze the moral questions at stake in the act

of whistleblowing, I will examine two prominent examples

of corporate whistleblowing, with particular attention to the

motivations and decisions of the central actors in those

cases. I will then consider the position articulated by

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his essay fragment ‘‘What Does It

Mean to Tell the Truth?’’ in which he examines the con-

textual nature of truth telling and considers the possible

appropriateness of lying under certain circumstances. I will

then extend his argument to consider the question of con-

flicting loyalty in the context of corporate whistleblowing,

finally returning the central question of how it may be

possible to adjudicate between competing moral claims

in situations where corporate corruption and malfeasance

requires moral actions by employees that may violate their

group obligations to the company, and their sense of loy-

alty to their peers.

Whistleblowing: Two Case Studies

I begin with two case studies. These cases have been

widely examined and reported on, and both have been

made into big-budget Hollywood movies, with their pro-

tagonists portrayed by marquee actors. While substantially

different in their details, both cases reveal the moral

complexity involved in the whistleblowing decision.

The first case is that of Jeffrey Wigand, the former

Brown & Williamson tobacco researcher who in 1993 blew

the whistle on the cover-up by the tobacco industry of

research proving the harmfulness of tobacco smoke.

(Brenner 1996) Wigand was widely vilified by the tobacco

industry, and the initial report of his work by 60 Minutes

was quashed by threats of a lawsuit against CBS. 3


ever, when the report was ultimately aired, it provided

devastating evidence that the tobacco industry had known

for decades that its products caused cancer and a raft of

other health effects in smokers. The documents demon-

strated that industry leaders had known this for years, and

yet testified repeatedly, often under oath, to the contrary. In

the wake of Wigand’s revelations, it became impossible for

tobacco companies to claim any longer that their products

were not harmful.

While Wigand’s actions were in many regards admira-

ble, and undertaken at great cost to himself, they were by

no means morally unambiguous, and Wigand himself is a

morally complex figure. As Marie Brenner notes, ‘‘the anti-

tobacco forces depict Jeffrey Wigand as a portrait of

courage, a Marlon Brando taking on the powers in On the

Waterfront. The pro-tobacco lobbies have been equally

vociferous in their campaign to turn Wigand into a demon,

a Mark Fuhrman who could cause potentially devastating

cases against the tobacco industry to dissolve over issues

that have little to do with the dangers of smoking.’’

(Brenner 1996, p. 5) Leaving aside the allegations made

against him by his former employers, who attempted to

paint him as feckless and profoundly dishonest, there are

other questions of group loyalty and obligation that need to

be considered when evaluating the moral implications of

his actions. 4

3 Among the tactics used against Wigand was the production of a 500

page dossier which purported to demonstrate that Wigand was an

unstable and unreliable witness. See Hwang and Geyelin (1996). 4

As regards the allegations made against him by his employers,

Brenner notes that the publicist responsible for the most damaging

allegations was investigated by the Department of Justice on charges

of witness intimidation (Brenner 1996, p. 5).

560 S. R. Paeth


Wigand was hired as Head of Research and Develop-

ment by Brown & Williamson Tobacco in 1989, ostensibly

to participate in the development of safer, low-tar ciga-

rettes to compete with other brands on the market. (Brenner

1996, pp. 8–9) He quickly came to realize that the job was

not what he expected. However, the $300,000 salary and

his belief that he was hired to pursue the development of

safer tobacco products kept him in the job for several years.

From the beginning, Wigand recognized that B&W did

not have the personnel or technology in his department to

do the kind of research necessary to produce safer prod-

ucts: ‘‘There was neither a toxicologist nor a physicist on

staff … How, he thought, could you be serious about studying the health aspects of tobacco or fire safety without

the proper experts?’’ (Brenner 1996, p. 9) He was also

being advised by legal experts to avoid, contrary to sci-

entific practice, keeping any notes or documentation that

could prove damaging to the company in litigation, while

lawyers ‘‘sometimes edited scientific information on addi-

tives.’’ (Brenner 1996, p. 9).

Wigand found himself increasingly in conflict with

B&W management over the company’s practices and

agenda. Information to which he should have had access as

head of R&D was withheld from him, including studies

demonstrating the adverse health effects of nicotine.

(Brenner 1996, p. 10) During this time, he began to keep an

extensive diary documenting much of what he had

uncovered about the company’s practices, though when he

was fired in 1993, his diary was never returned. (Brenner

1996, p. 10) As part of his severance package, Wigand

signed a life-long confidentiality agreement that required

him not to discuss Brown & Williamson in any way.

(Brenner 1996, p. 17) When he began to work as a con-

sultant for anti-tobacco groups and journalists attempting

to report on the story, he initially sought to operate within

the terms of the agreement, but eventually was persuaded

by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman to go on record

about his experiences. 5

There are legitimate questions of whether or not Wigand

and other whistleblowers have any moral obligations to

hold in confidence things that they learn in the context of

corporate deliberations that are intended to be secret. In the

same vein, to what degree is it a violation of his obligation

to his employer to leak documents that are intended to be

understood as work product and thus the property of the

company that owns them? To what degree was Wigand

bound by contractual obligations to maintain confidential-

ity or honor non-disclosure agreements?

One strand of moral reflection on such questions would

answer that, to the extent that Wigand’s actions had the

consequence of exposing the deception of the cigarette

industry, and thus revealing the actual harm that they knew

cigarettes to cause, Wigand’s actions could be morally

justified as producing an overall greater good. 6


strand of thinking would argue that we are not in fact bound

in any circumstances to honor promises that result in harm

to others, even if the act of promising itself is understood to

carry with it a strong conception of moral obligation. 7


content of the promise matters, and one cannot be morally

bound to honor a morally objectionable promise.

Then there is a strand of moral thinking that would

argue that Wigand was in fact unconditionally bound by his

promises, irrespective of their consequences. 8

Under this

interpretation, while Wigand may not have been obligated

to continue acting on behalf of Brown & Williamson once

he knew for a fact that they had been engaged in harmful

deception, he was bound by the promises and contracts that

he had undertaken to refuse to disclose that information

which he had promised to keep secret.

There are arguments to be made for each of these posi-

tions. They each take seriously one aspect or another of the

situation in which the whistleblower finds him or herself. A

consequentialist argument would recognize the obligation

that all moral agents have to maximize benefits or reduce

harms when it is within their power to do so. The failure to

take the harm done through our action or inaction into

account would render any moral theory dubious at a mini-

mum. On the other hand, if a consequentialist argument

requires us to disregard our promises, then the very act of

promising is potentially rendered meaningless, as any

promise can be broken at any time if the agents considers

5 Brenner (1996, p. 21) much of the subsequent drama surrounding

the story centered on the controversy within CBS about whether or

not to run the story, given the possibility of lawsuits as well as other

considerations. The details, while fascinating in their own right, are

peripheral to the basic moral question at stake, namely the conflict

between Wigand’s responsibilities as a former employee of B&W and

his obligations to the larger public as a whistleblower. It does bear

noting however that much of Brenner’s piece centers on the hardball

tactics used by Brown & Williamson to silence Wigand, and the role

that those tactics played in his ultimate decision. She summarizes the

perspective of one of her interviewees, Jack Palladino, as follows:

‘‘For Palladino, there is little about Wigand that reminds him of

Edmond Safra, the banker—and the client of Stanley Arkin—he

worked for who was also the victim of a smear. Safra was motivated

by a sense of moral outrage, Palladino tells me, whereas Wigand’s

level of tension is a sign of pure fear’’ (Brenner 1996, p. 31).

6 For a recent discussion of consequentialist moral theory, see

Mendola (2006). 7

For some recent discussions of the ethics of promising, see

Patterson (1992) and Conee (2000). 8

One could argue that promise-making is a foundational example of

an illocutionary act, a performative utterance the declaration of which

brings about a particular state of being. Thus, the act of pledging

loyalty to his employers brought about a set of obligations in Wigand

that would otherwise have not existed. But, existing, such a pledge is

by its nature binding. See Austin (1962).

The Responsibility to Lie and the Obligation to Report 561


the reasons sufficiently compelling. But if this is so, in what

sense are we reasonably engaged in the act of promising?

When we consider whistleblowing in the abstract, it is

relatively easy to view the actions of the whistleblower to

be unqualifiedly admirable, as exposing a secret which was

immoral to keep and revealing malfeasance the continuing

concealment of which could cause great harm. But looking

only at that dimension of the question obscures the cross-

hatching pattern of obligations and commitments in which

the whistleblower—as well as those who opt not to blow

the whistle on corporate corruption—are enmeshed.

A more problematic case of whistleblowing is that of

former Archer Daniels Midland executive Mark Whitacre.

While Jeffrey Wigand is a morally complex individual in

his own right, Whitacre raises a very different set of moral

questions. As a whistleblower, he engaged in some genu-

inely admirable actions, yet, in the process of doing so,

systematically lied, not only to his employer on behalf of

the FBI, but also to the FBI as he embezzled from ADM in

order to enrich himself. While he eventually confessed to

his crimes and served time in jail, his actions substantially

undermined the government’s case against ADM.

Between 1992 and 1995, Whitacre worked as a coop-

erating witness in an FBI investigation of ADM, recording

hundreds of hours of conversations between ADM execu-

tives and representatives of rival agricultural companies

from around the world. (Eichenwald 2000) These conver-

sations served as the foundational evidence in a price-fix-

ing case against ADM, revealing that the company had

‘‘organized a scheme to steal hundreds of millions of dol-

lars from its own customers.’’ (Eichenwald 2000, p. 7)

In order to help uncover ADM’s criminal activity, Whitacre

had to engage in a systematic campaign of deception and

subterfuge directed toward his employer and colleagues who

were in many cases also close friends. His cooperation with the

FBI required him to create a false presentation of himself to

those with whom he spent the bulk of most of his days. As

colleagues carried on what they assumed to be private con-

versations, Whitacre was recording it all, even as he partici-

pated, laughed, joked, and told ribald tales along with them. His

entire professional self-display was in this sense a lie. While

pretending to be a colleague and co-conspirator, he was in fact

a double agent, a spy.

There was a sense in which Whitacre seemed to relish the

experience. He frequently volunteered information that the

FBI was not specifically seeking, and took risks beyond

those required of him by the investigation, often to the

immense frustration of his FBI handlers. At the same time,

the enormous stress of the experience took a great toll on

him. His enthusiasm for helping the FBI was counterbal-

anced by moments of panic, while his demeanor at home

became more withdrawn and eccentric. As Kurt Eichenwald


It wasn’t just his frequent absences anymore, or his

repeated failure to attend family events or just come

home for dinner. Those aspects of his behavior had

almost become accepted in the household as a given.

But now, even when he was home, he wasn’t com-

pletely there. Mark seemed to be drifting through his

family, with the detachment of a commuter waiting

for a train to take him away.

But there was more. Ginger didn’t understand it, but

Mark had just become weird. Over the summer, they

had built horse stables across the street, and Ginger

loved to relax with an occasional ride. But Mark

would disappear to the stables for hours, often not

returning until 2:00 in the morning. Usually he would

come home saying that he had been brushing the

horses. Brushing the horses for three or four hours?

Then, a few hours later, he would head for work. It

just wasn’t normal. He seemed to be getting almost

no sleep. (Eichenwald 2000, p. 254)

Then there was the issue of the embezzling. On August 7,

1995, ADM fired Whitacre, accusing him of having

embezzled more than $2.5 million from the company.

(Henkoff 1995) Whitacre claimed that this money was

compensation that ADM had agreed to pay him. But his

ever-changing story and repeated inconsistencies were

extremely damaging to the government’s case against

ADM. In the end, the company was able to argue

persuasively that Whitacre’s actions amounted to embez-

zlement and money laundering. He eventually pled guilty

to ‘‘charges of wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to

defraud the IRS, filing false income tax return, and

interstate transportation of stolen property’’. (U. S. Depart-

ment of Justice 1997) In his plea deal, he admitted to

embezzling as much as $9 million from Archer Daniels

Midland. As Whitacre later explained to Kurt Eichenwald:

Shortly after arriving at the company … he had heard rumors that some executives had engaged in corpo-

rate frauds – yet no one seemed to care. And indeed,

just two years after Whitacre’s arrival at ADM, the

corporate treasurer left the company amidst allega-

tions of financial wrongdoing, yet no criminal action

was ever taken.

Stealing seemed to pose little risk of punishment.

And so, Whitacre stole. ‘‘They’re criminals,’’ he said.

‘‘What are they going to do if they catch me? How

could they risk having a criminal case?’’ … The later multimillion-dollar thefts, he said, only

came about when he believed the investigation was

coming to a close. He feared that the case put his

finances at risk and decided to steal more to protect

himself. (Eichenwald 2000, p. 561)

562 S. R. Paeth


This confession sums up much of the paradox of Mark

Whitacre: it is both self-serving and morally self-aware; he

recognizes on the one hand that what he was doing was

illegal, but argues that he was justified because he was

surrounded by a culture of corruption; and he finally

attempts to exculpate himself on the grounds that the

investigation launched as a result of his own revelations to

the FBI so endangered his personal finances that he felt

compelled to go for the big score while he still could. In all

of this, however, it never seems to fully dawn on him how

damaging his actions were to they very moral stand that he

had so courageously taken in the first place—to become a

whistleblower in order to expose a deep morass of

corporate corruption. In the end, knowing where the lies

end and the truth begins is the central challenge in

understanding Mark Whitacre and his motivations.

Whitacre is a fascinating character on several levels. On

the one hand, he approached the FBI voluntarily to inform

them about ADM’s corrupt practices (though only after

having cajoled to do so by his wife), and then assisted the

FBI in gathering information by wearing a wire to a series

of meetings in which their price-fixing scheme was dis-

cussed. Over a period of 3 years he provided the FBI with

hundreds of hours of tape validating the violation of U.S.

law, not only by ADM executives but also by executives of

several other firms. ‘‘With little obvious incentive, Mark

Whitacre secretly recorded colleagues and competitors as

they illegally divided the world markets among themselves,

setting far higher prices for their products than free com-

petition would allow.’’ (Eichenwald 2000, p. 7)

At the same time, he had embezzled more than nine

million dollars himself from ADM, lied extensively to the

FBI in the aftermath of his discovery, engaged in bizarre

behavior, and even went so far as to accuse the FBI of

forcing him to destroy evidence. As a result, Whitacre

wound up being the only subject of the investigation to

spend any actual time in jail.

Whitacre’s case brings up many of the same problems as

the Wigand case, but adds the additional element of

Whitacre’s self-conscious deception of both his employers

and the FBI. Yet, like Wigand and other whistleblowers, he

did expose a significant case of corporate corruption and

criminal activity. To some degree, his more obviously

blame-worthy actions may be mitigated morally by mental

illness and the pressure of working undercover for the FBI,

but it is also possible to morally evaluate and distinguish

between his deception of ADM on the one hand, and his

deception of the FBI on the other, in order to gain a clearer

understanding of what the morally problematic nature of

the latter deception was. In order to aid in this, I will turn

now to the work of the German theologian Dietrich


Bonhoeffer on Responsibility, Truth Telling, and Lying

In Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary essay ‘‘What Does It Mean to

Tell the Truth?’’ he offers a telling illustration of the nature

of truth telling and deception. Imagine he says, a circum-

stance in which a child is called out by his teacher in front

of his class and asked if his father often comes home drunk

(Bonhoeffer 2006, pp. 601ff.) The child, Bonhoeffer

argues, would lie in order to protect his father, but in doing

so, would actually be telling a larger and more significant

truth, namely that the teacher has exceeded his authority in

asking the question, and violated the sovereign moral

sphere of the family. It is not for the teacher to ask such

questions in such circumstances, and by saying no, the

child affirms, in an inchoate way, the more basic and

fundamental truth of his situation. As Bonhoeffer puts the


Lies on the part of children and inexperienced per-

sons in general can frequently be traced back to their

being placed in situations that they cannot fully

fathom. For this reason it is questionable whether it

makes sense to generalize and extend the concept of

lying (which is and ought to be understood as

something downright reprehensible) in such a way

that it coincides with the concept of a formally untrue

statement. Indeed, all of this demonstrates how dif-

ficult it is to say what lying really is. (Bonhoeffer

2006, p. 606)

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