The ethics of whistleblowing exposes a deep difference between Western and Confucian ethics. While both utilitarianism and Kant would probably say that whistleblowing is morally right, in Eastern (Confucian) ethics (and perhaps in virtue ethics), whistleblowing might be wrong because it violates one’s obligations to one’s friends, relatives, co-workers or superiors.
“Whistleblowing” means that a person considers their duty to society at large or to some abstract moral principle to be more important than their duty to their own social circle (for example, their employer). So is whistleblowing ethical?
There is a difference between Western and Eastern ethics regarding the moral status of whistleblowing. In Western ethics, particularly Kantian ethics, whistleblowing would be the right thing to do. In Eastern (Confucian) ethics, whistleblowing might be wrong because it violates one’s obligations to one’s friends, relatives, co-workers or superiors.
In Western ethics (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics), we generally think that the morally good action is one that satisfies particular moral principles (see here for a short discussion of what these theories are looking at). We also think that ethics, as well as the law, should not look at who the agent is, but treat all human beings equally and impartially.
In this framework, a whistleblower is acting morally right, because they notice some action that violates ethical principles (or the law) and they make it public so that the state (or other citizens) can intervene and stop the bad or illegal action from being performed. We think that it would be morally bad to see something immoral or illegal happening, but to cover it up instead of reporting it, because the bad agent is our friend or boss.
But this is a specific property of Western ethics (and not all Western ethics; virtue ethics, for example, might not always agree). Confucius, the most prominent ancient Chinese philosopher, thought that exactly the opposite was good behaviour:
The Governor of She in conversation with Confucius said, ‘In our village, there is someone called [Upright] Person. When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.’ Confucius replied: ‘Those who are [upright] in my village conduct themselves differently. A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father. Uprightness consists of this.’ (Analects 13.18)_
So Confucius believes that the bond between family members is more important than some abstract notion of justice, and he probably would disagree with whistleblowing for the same reason. He would think that loyalty to one’s company, colleagues, and one’s boss is more important than following general ethical rules.
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