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August 24th, 2016
The 2016 Rio Olympics were a great sporting event, and an ethical mess

So, the 2016 Olympics are over. And while the Olympics always seem to serve up their share of controversy, this year’s event in Rio seems to have had more than the usual quantum of troubles. In fact, the Rio Olympics featured enough scandals and ethical dilemmas to keep a university Moral Issues course going for […]

February 6th, 2014
Sochi, and Solidarity With the Gay Community

The business community can, and should, follow AT&T’s lead in speaking out in solidarity with the LGBT community. On February 4th, the company’s Consumer Blog featured an entry entitled, A Time for Pride and Equality. “We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is […]

November 5th, 2013
Die zehn am meisten verschmutzten Orte weltweit

Genf (csr-news) > Die unabhängige Umweltorganisation Green Cross Schweiz legt in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Blacksmith Institute, USA, eine Liste der zehn weltweit am stärksten verschmutzten Orte vor. Diese zehn Orte verteilen sich auf acht Länder. Die Top-Ten-Liste ist in alphabetischer Reihenfolge nach Ländern

August 9th, 2013
Business, the Sochi Olympics, and gay rights

In light of Russia’s appalling stance on gay rights, the Sochi Olympics represent a true ethical dilemma for the organizations involved. On one hand, Russia’s recent anti-gay law is truly ethically abhorrent, and should be denounced in the strongest possible terms. If Vladimir Putin’s government is willing to jail people, or worse, simply for expressing […]

June 19th, 2013
Why all these whistleblowers recently?

Whistleblowing, this obscure practice discussed in most business ethics textbooks (we do so in Chapter 7), has become a big topic of discussion these days. The latest incident is Edward Snowdon and his revelation about the ongoing surveillance of phone and internet usage of American citizens by the US government. But he is not alone: currently on trial is Bradley Manning, who provided Wikileaks with the material for exposing the diplomatic correspondence of the US government.

The general contention with whistleblowing is becoming clear in both cases: are these individual traitors who defaulted on their duties by breaching the rules and codes they had agreed to abide by when entering their job? Or are they ‘heroes’ whose behavior is governed by higher, more general, and persistent ethical standards than their day-to-day job environment would allow them to follow?

It is useful to look at some historic cases of whistleblowing – and indeed cases, where certainly by hindsight the general agreement seems to be that the whistleblowers are in the second category of ‘ethical hero’. Think of Jeffrey Wigand, the executive of tobacco company Brown&Williamson who exposed the practice of enhancing the addictive potential of cigarettes of his employer (famously turned into the movie The Insider). Or think of Sherron Watkins, who initially blew the whistle on the practices at ENRON and contributed to the uncovering of the scandal in 2001. Turning to the political sphere, currently many references are made to Daniel Ellsberg who in 1971 leaked the ‘Pentagon Papers’ disclosing that the US government for years had systematically mislead the public about the impact, casualties and costs of the Vietnam war.

Whistleblowing commonly seems to occur in a situation where the moral status of organizational practice – be it a private company or a public institution such as the NSA or the Pentagon – deviate from the wider moral values which society deems appropriate. And crucially, it has to be added, these actions also deviate from the professed moral standards of the organization against which those individuals blow the whistle.

This is rather evident in the case of Ellsberg: by the early 1970s, the public in the US all long thought that the war in Vietnam had lost its moral cause; his revelations proved that the US government, too, was all along aware that what it did in Vietnam no longer could live up to the public mission and norms according to which the American government professed to act. Similar are the cases of Wigand and Watkins: in the same way the Tobacco industry outwardly professed that they were not aware of the addictive impact of cigarettes, ENRON had always claimed to be an ethical company. The same applies to the current Manning and Snowdon cases: Obama ran on the promise to stop the abuses by the previous Bush administration and to restore basic civil liberties – and is now found out to do the same or worse.

The dilemma of whistleblowers all points to the fundamental differentiation established by Max Weber a century ago: Members of a social group (incl. an organization) can act according to an ethics of responsibilityor according to an ethics of conviction. The first looks at the consequences of an action and basically suggests that a virtuous individual is one that lives up to the expectations of all who are affected directly by the consequences of an action. In practice, this boils down to abiding by the rules and procedures of the organization. The main arguments against whistleblowing then all come in the shape of what the effects of the revelations are on other people (that was the big argument against Wikileaks) or how it affects the general functioning of a secret service where everybody potentially can leak anything (the current debate on Snowdon).

What justifies whistleblowing then is Weber’s ethics of conviction according to which an individual makes an ethical choice based on personal moral convictions. The act is based on principles, rather than anticipated consequences. In most cases whistleblowers refer to general principles of either good business practice regarding customers (the tobacco case) or shareholders (ENRON) or good government based on some basic democratic principles (such as the Ellsberg, Manning or Snowdon case).

Historically, such reasoning based on an ethics of conviction always becomes more relevant at a time when fundamental values of society are in question and challenged. The Vietnam war raised basic questions about the moral limits of the cold war; the tobacco scandals exposed the lack of basic moral rules of consumer protection; ENRON initiated the ongoing moral scrutiny of a shareholder value dominated form of capitalism; the Manning and Snowdon cases now raise fundamental moral questions about civic liberties, civic rights to privacy and protection of personal data and the appropriate powers of the state in protecting these liberties.

It is somewhat tragic – as probably the cases of Ellsberg and Wigand best illustrate – that whistleblowers are mostly recognized as moral, conviction-driven human beings quite some time after the events. At the time of the whistleblowing defenders of the status quo always wield two crucial tools: they can either invoke arguments following an ethics of responsibilityand point to the potential harm and the anarchic nature of the act; Bradley Manning’s trial can be followed as a textbook example of this reasoning.

Or, they can try to discredit the ‘convictions’ of the whistleblower. Since these often reflect a wider moral consensus in society it is hard to attack those principles or norms directly. More effective seems to be an approach that discredits the whistleblower on a personal level. In Ellsberg’s case the CIA broke into his psychiatrist’s office to obtain information on his mental health and love life; in Wigand’s case a similar smear campaign was initiated. Currently with regard to Edward Snowdon, it is conspicuous how the entire political spectrum in the US is more or less embarking on this trajectory. From Bill Maher’s jokes last Friday night on Real Time to David Brook’s notorious profile in the New York Times - most seem eager to present him as some sort of self-aggrandizing nerd.

Whistleblowers turn up at a time when societies or organizations are deviating from commonly accepted and widely shared moral values. Whatever our concrete judgment about individuals and their motives - the fact that whistleblowing occurs at this point in history clearly points to a wider epiphany. Ironically, Snowdon relocated to the very country which for so long has been accused by the West of not respecting the human rights of their citizens in exactly this issue arena – much to the distress of Google, Yahoo or other companies. It looks like Obama currently has a bit of a hard time to explain to China, Russia or even his European allies, how his approach to privacy and data protection still reflects basic values of liberal democracies.

Picture by DonkeyHotey, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

April 23rd, 2012
Secretary-General Appoints New Global Compact Board Members, Strengthens Focus on Business Engagement

(New York) – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed 14 new members to the Global Compact Board, the UN’s highest-level advisory body involving business, civil society, labour and employers organizations. The following individuals were newly appointed to serve a three-year term: Mr. Jorge Abrahao, President, Ethos

November 8th, 2011
Local Networks in Europe Convene

(Rome) – The Global Compact Local Networks in Europe convened over three days for a Regional Meeting and sustainability conference – both focused on Rio+20 – as well as a training session and meeting of the Global Compact Local Network Italy. During the

December 7th, 2010
Is too much transparency a bad thing?

It’s been quite a week or so for transparency. The incendiary WikiLeaks release of almost a quarter of a million classified cables from the US diplomatic service has set news media across the world alight with daily revelations that have acutely emba...

November 5th, 2010
European Global Compact Networks Strengthen Collaboration

(Brussels) – Today Global Compact Local Networks from Europe concluded a regional meeting in Brussels, hosted by the Global Compact Network Belgium. Attendees included representatives from business, government, civil society, academia and international organizations. Local Networks in attendance included: Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium,

August 17th, 2010
Governments Renew Support for the Global Compact

(New York) – The UN Global Compact Office released today the report of the Ministerial Session held in conjunction with the Global Compact Leaders Summit 2010, held on 23-25 June in New York. Ministers and other high-level government officials attending the Ministerial Session encouraged

April 16th, 2010
Local Networks in Eastern Europe and Central Asia Hold Regional Meeting

(Sofia) – Global Compact Local Networks from Eastern Europe and Central Asia met for a Regional Meeting in Sofia today, hosted by the Global Compact Network Bulgaria. Attendees included representatives from Local Networks in Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, Russia, Italy and Ukraine.

May 6th, 2009
E.ON kombiniert Print und Online im CR-Bericht

Düsseldorf > E.ON beschreitet heute im CSR-Reporting neue Wege. Als Druckversion erscheint das 28-seitige CR-Magazin „Verantwortung. Einblicke in unser Handeln“. Das Magazin verweist mit vielen Quicklinks auf die Website www.eon.com/verantwortung, wo eine umfassendere Berichterstattung ab sofort online gestellt ist. Der digitale Bericht orientiert

July 11th, 2008
You Really Should Get To Know Tim Fort

Timothy L. Fort, Business, Integrity, and Peace: Beyond Geopolitical and Disciplinary Boundaries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) A Review by William C. Frederick, June 2008 Honestly, you should. Fort’s ideas are original, bold, daring, provocative, challenging --- yet well grounded in theory, concept, research,

March 10th, 2008
Corporate Cause Promotion zugunsten des Wal- und Delfinschutzes

München > Einen Beitrag zum Schutz der Wale und Delfine leistet das Team Russia beim diesjährigen Volvo Ocean Race. Team Russia gab auf der österreichischen Bootsmesse in Tulln die Zusammenarbeit mit der internationalen Wal- und Delfinschutzorganisation WDCS bekannt. "Das Volvo Ocean Race 2008

August 7th, 2007
Medikamente und Patente: Gericht in Indien entscheidet gegen Schweizer Pharmakonzern

Vor zwei Monaten, da hatte es das Thema sogar bis in die Tagesschau geschafft: Medikamente und Patente. Arzneimittel für die Armen der Welt und Konzernprofite in den Industrieländern, das wurde diskutiert und darüber wurde in vielen Medien berichtet, als in Heiligendamm der G8-Gipfel

June 5th, 2007
‘Rhetoric exceeds action’, says Transparency International report on G8 promises

Report calls for G8 to report on their progress in fighting corruption in 2008 Berlin, 5 June 2007 - Transparency International’s (TI) ‘G8 Progress Report’ , issued today in Berlin, a day ahead of the Group of Eight (G8) Summit in Germany, concludes that

October 24th, 2006
Accountability Rating 2006

Vodafone is the World’s Number One Most Accountable Business Annual rating ranks global business, industries and regions October 23rd 2006, London: Vodafone Group is ranked number one in this year’s global Accountability Rating, narrowly overtaking BP, which has been ranked number one since 2004.

September 27th, 2006
Who Pays The Bribes? Transparency International to launch Bribe Payers Index 2006

Transparency International to launch Bribe Payers Index 2006 4 October 2006 9:00 GMT New Index ranks 30 leading exporting countries by propensity of firms to bribe abroad Berlin, 27 September 2006 -- The Bribe Payers Index 2006, now in its third edition, ranks the propensity

August 24th, 2006
AccountAbility Establishes Permanent North American Presence

EMBARGOED 21st August 2006, London and Washington DC AccountAbility Establishes Permanent North American Presence AccountAbility, best known for its work on sustainability standards, stakeholder engagement and responsible competitiveness, is establishing a permanent presence in North America, based in Washington DC. The venture will be led

July 19th, 2006
Strong words on global fight against corruption, treading water on Africa and oil

Berlin / St Petersburg, 17 July 2006 – The G8’s statement on Fighting High-Level Corruption points to a maturing understanding of corruption and numbered days for impunity of public officials. The statements on oil and on Africa contain nods to the requisite initiatives,

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