Whistle-blowing: Commentary on Goldsmith

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

Jakobovits Centre for Jewish Medical Ethics,
The Faculty of Health Sciences,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, P.O.B. 653, 84105 Beer-Sheva, ISRAEL


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 95.
I am not qualified to judge Professor Goldsmith's epidemiology (EJAIB 5 (1995), 87-91) and will only remark that he makes a very intriguing suggestion that the concept of "risk" may need legal definitions of probability in addition to epidemiological. I hope this suggestion will be explored in depth by other researchers.

Goldsmith's question as to the ethical obligations of a scientist who unintentionally comes upon evidence of cover-ups, distortion of data, etc., applies to many areas of bioethics. It is part of the large question of "whistle blowing", which I have often run into when teaching nursing ethics and have had to deal with questions raised by nurses who claim to have seen medical negligence and who have to weigh their ethical obligation to complain against the fear of endangering their careers and chances of livelihood.

I have no clear answers but I would like to suggest a number of principles. I am not sure they are all correct but perhaps they can be a basis for future discussion. Some are based on halacha (Jewish Law) about the obligation to rebuke a wrongdoer. Others simply seem reasonable. I hope readers will contribute their comments.

1. Your own professional security has a lot to do with your ability to blow the whistle. A tenured professor can obviously raise more of a fuss than can a beginning nurse, an intern or a lecturer.

2. But the seriousness of the offence, especially the danger to others (as in the case of microwave danger) is a big factor. I would not risk my career to report a professor whom I caught stealing paper clips, but I ought to do so if he or she is endangering people's health.

3. One can be morally stricter with oneself than with others. Although I may decide to risk my own career in certain circumstances I would not necessarily push a student to risk his or her career in the same circumstance. Each person has his or her own degree of moral courage and must make his or her own decisions.

4. I think the less seriously you take material goods, professional prestige, luxuries and the like the more likely you may be to risk them for an ethical reason. Perhaps this is why the Rabbis in the Mishna said: "Eat bread and salt and sleep on the floor." If you keep your material needs small then you are really rich. Losing a job because you have taken a moral stand will not hurt you any more than it would hurt an independently wealthy person.

5. On the other hand losing your job is not just a matter of loss of livelihood. You also deprive the world of the services you performed. You may cause many people to lose an excellent teacher, doctor or nurse or scientist if you get yourself fired. Whether you should take this risk may depend, once more, on the seriousness of the offence you feel obligated to report.

6. Much depends on your ability to complain diplomatically. Sometimes you can accomplish more by calling a person aside and politely explaining the seriousness of an offence rather than making a public stink.

7. One must be sure of one's facts. It is a cruel breach of ethics to ruin or even cast a slur on an innocent person's reputation. Notice that John Goldsmith let several years go by and the security situation had changed before he finally decided to "blow the whistle". Part of his reluctance was due to evidence that his colleagues had had their opinions manipulated, while they were working under a research contract.


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