There’s something from the systems perspective that illustrates the difficulties faced by whistleblowers and also explains why vast networks of corruption can be so hard to reform. Corruption in a network often reaches a tipping point, or critical mass. And once that point has been reached, the mass of the network becomes far greater than any individual or group within the network; and keeping secrets becomes like a force of gravity.
It’s also similar to a long freight train. Think of the force it would take to tip a single freight car off the tracks. But then think of the force it would take to tip it off the tracks if it was in the middle of a quarter-mile long train, with every car linked together. But the lines of force in a network are not just linear; they go in every direction. So how does one fight a network whose corruption has gone beyond critical mass? One needs to create critical mass in the opposite direction. And that’s essentially what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa did.
This is also a case of divided loyalties and of being on the horns of a dilemma of betrayal, where one betrays someone or something no matter which way one turns. So if you fear betraying your promise to keep the secret, you have already, perhaps, betrayed the people against whom the secret is being kept from, the American people, for example. Maybe that would be some comfort to people who are considering whether or not to become a whistle blower. But then again, the American people are an abstract quantity compared to colleagues that might be harmed.
And so it’s a case of divided loyalties and dilemmas of betrayal at the same time. In a sense, though, the polarities cancel each other out no matter which decision one makes, just as they are reinforced no matter which decision one makes. So maybe the utilitarian approach would be the best guide. The question then becomes what are the broader consequences of telling the secret or not telling it? But I suspect there are cases where one feels divided right down the middle of one’s being, where telling the secret might do a great good for society and yet severely harm an innocent individual. Or perhaps it’s a case where one should be loyal to the highest principle—-excluding the principle of loyalty, which is the problem to start with. Still, that would be a very tough decision for even the most virtuous person.
But why should this be so? This seems like a blindness to me. It reminds me of how strange it seems to most people that Gandhi’s satyagrahis took vows to die, if need be, in the service of nonviolence. But what’s so strange about that? Soldiers vow to die in the service of violence all the time. And they kill innocent people all the time as the result of their actions—-perhaps not intentionally, but because they couldn’t fulfill their duties otherwise. Wouldn’t it be a similar in the case of a whistleblower? Except the person they may harm may be a comerade. But maybe they need to heed the call to a higher sense of duty—-the greater good. Of course this isn’t likely to be much comfort to them. And they probably should not expect much comfort. They’ll probably be second guessing their decision, one way or another, for the rest of their lives.
There’s a good book about the complications created by divided loyalties called Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Eric Felten (Simon & Schuster, 2011). It’s written more in a journalistic style than a formal style, but it was very well thought-out. And I’m not aware of any other book on the subject.