Humanist thoughts on National Whistleblowers Appreciation Day



June 30th was National Whistleblower Appreciation Day in the United States, marked by a unanimous Senate resolution to commemorate the sacrifices whistleblowers have sustained to protect the public interest.

The day falls on the anniversary of the passage of the world's first whisteblower law to allow dispensation for individuals to expose injustices, the passage of which was prompted by a misconduct scandal involving the highest-ranking US naval official in 1777.

Whistleblowing isn't an act exclusive to massive government scandals like Watergate or the Edward Snowden leaks. It involves tenacious, everyday members of the public standing up against discrimination, harassment (sexual or otherwise), negative work environments, financial waste, safety hazards and more.  Whistleblowers can come from a variety of fields including government, media, blue collar industry, entertainment, finance, and education

The ethics of whistleblowing—when and how to raise alarm about a perceived injustice—can be subject to some debate among humanists. The whistleblower arguably plays a pivotal role in our struggle toward creating an equitable society. However, the argument exists that there are occasions when whistleblowing may be the wrong choice. How can we make sure we are not motivated by spite or personal grievance, or are seeking publicity a preconceived viewpoint?

Perhaps we only see the tip of an iceberg-sized complex issue, and may not be making a fully informed decision. Perhaps our action may indadvantly create a more dangerous or unethical situation.

On the other hand, one can make the case that any action is most often preferable to inaction. Complicity can be a crime. Under this reasoning, do we ignore individual motives to focus on the majority's benefit? There are times when the consequences of a moral act may not be obvious in the short term, perhaps not in our lifetime. A news interview today may snowball into a massive political shift tomorrow. If the public reaps the benefits, does it matter whether a movement starts as an act of self-seeking? Are we better to err on the side of the freest possible flow of information, and leave the consequences up to time?

Upon consideration of this dilemma, we ultimately return to the need for vigilant self-reflection before taking any action. Should we find ourselves wondering whether to shine light on our perception of an issue, perhaps the best we can do is check our own motivations, check our understanding of the situation, and make the most informed decision possible based on the facts at hand. 

This article is part of a series written by guest contributors exploring how to incorporate humanist values into their everyday lives. The opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily express those of Foundation Beyond Belief, its staff, or donors.