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Whistleblowing and the Bioethicist’s Public Obligations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2014


Bioethicists are sometimes thought to have heightened obligations by virtue of the fact that their professional role addresses ethics or morals. For this reason it has been argued that bioethicists ought to “whistleblow”—that is, publicly expose the wrongful or potentially harmful activities of their employer—more often than do other kinds of employees. This article argues that bioethicists do indeed have a heightened obligation to whistleblow, but not because bioethicists have heightened moral obligations in general. Rather, the special duties of bioethicists to act as whistleblowers are best understood by examining the nature of the ethical dilemma typically encountered by private employees and showing why bioethicists do not encounter this dilemma in the same way. Whistleblowing is usually understood as a moral dilemma involving conflicting duties to two parties: the public and a private employer. However, this article argues that this way of understanding whistleblowing has the implication that professions whose members identify their employer as the public—such as government employees or public servants—cannot consider whistleblowing a moral dilemma, because obligations are ultimately owed to only one party: the public. The article contends that bioethicists—even when privately employed—are similar to government employees in the sense that they do not have obligations to defer to the judgments of those with private interests. Consequently, bioethicists may be considered to have a special duty to whistleblow, although for different reasons than those usually cited.

Special Section: Open Forum
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1. There are many definitions of whistleblowing, most of which share the basic elements listed here. For summaries of the controversial aspects to the definition, see Davis M. Whistleblowing. International Encyclopedia of Ethics 2013:5456–60; available at (last accessed 27 Apr 2013); Jubb PB. Whistleblowing: A restrictive definition and interpretation. Journal of Business Ethics 1999;21(1):77–94.

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3. See note 2, Freedman 1996.

4. For another account of what it might mean for personal ethics to be central to the professional ethicist’s job, see Baylis, F, Brody, H. The importance of character for ethics consultants. In: Aulisio, MP, Arnold, RM, Youngner, SJ, eds. Ethics Consultation: From Theory to Practice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2003:3744.Google Scholar

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7. See note 1, Davis 2013.

8. De George, RT. Business Ethics. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall; 2010, at 299.Google Scholar

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11. See note 8, De George 2010.

12. See note 9, Davis 1996.

13. I treat the obligation of an employee to an employer as paradigmatic, although it may be that other relationships between individuals and organizations also create obligations of loyalty.

14. See note 1, Davis 2013.

15. Davis M. Avoiding the tragedy of whistleblowing. Business & Professional Ethics Journal 1989:3–19.

16. In the United States this took the form of the Whistleblowers Protection Act of 1989, which protects only civil servants. Significant legislation protecting private employee whistleblowers was not passed until the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (and even this protects only a subset of private-sector whistleblowers). Canada, likewise, passed the Public Accountability Act in 2005 to protect federal employees and has not (as yet) passed any federal legislation protecting private employees acting as whistleblowers.

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19. For a similar view, see Sontag D. What is wrong with “ethics for sale”? An analysis of the many issues that complicate the debate about conflicts of interests in bioethics. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 2007;35(1):175–86.

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