Category Archives: tactics

Whistleblowing and loyalty

Whistleblowers can gain insights from Jonathan Haidt’s studies of the foundations for morality.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, for example to expose corruption, abuse or dangers to the public. Surely this should be seen as a valuable service. Yet whistleblowers are frequently treated as traitors, as guilty of something worse than the abuses and crimes they reveal.


National security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have been called traitors. Whistleblowers who are teachers, police officers, public servants or corporate executives may be called traitors, dobbers, snitches or other epithets.

Just as important as words are the reprisals that whistleblowers experience, including ostracism, petty harassment, demotions, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. To be targeted with such hostile actions signifies condemnation, even contempt. Where does this vitriol and hostility come from?

Also important is the role of bystanders, in particular the co-workers who might personally support the whistleblower but are unwilling to take a stand. Many of them are afraid they will become targets themselves; others always support management, sometimes in the hope of rewards. It is reasonable to ask, where does the incredible power of the organisation come from?

The Righteous Mind

Insights can be gained from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist, set out to discover the biological bases of human morality. But first it is useful to explain Haidt’s picture of the mind.


Imagine that your mind has two main components. The first is a rational, calculating operator that can examine courses of action and logically consider principles of behaviour. This is how most people think of themselves. Haidt calls this component the “rider.”

The second part of the mind is an intuitive operator that makes judgements on the basis of gut instinct, without consideration for facts or logic. This part is filled with passions and commitments, which the rider might consider biased and impulsive. Haidt calls this second part of the mind the “elephant.” The elephant makes day-to-day life possible; its quick responses are often sensible — but not always.

Haidt uses the metaphors of the rider and the elephant to highlight a key insight from studies of the mind: for many purposes, rational evaluation is unable to restrain instinctive responses. The elephant is too large and powerful to be controlled by the rider.

Haidt, through careful assessment of psychological research, concludes that in most cases the primary role of the rider is to figure out ways to justify what the elephant does. In other words, people reach their views about the world on the basis of gut instinct, and then their rational minds figure out reasons to justify these views.

Elephant and Rider

This is not a pretty picture, especially for those who believe in the primacy of rationality, or believe that they personally follow reason rather than emotion.

The next step in Haidt’s analysis is discovering the foundations of morality. Through a variety of means, he arrived at six main foundations that shape people’s senses of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt used various tests to work out which of these values influence judgements in US people. He found that “liberals” (who might be called progressives in Australia) rely especially on care, liberty and fairness, whereas conservatives rely more equally on all of the foundations. This helps explain some of the political differences in the US.

Most of these foundations are relevant to whistleblowers. One key foundation, care, means looking after those in need, for example children and people suffering misfortune. When whistleblowers speak out about abuse of children or shortcomings in health services, they are implicitly appealing to the care foundation for morality. Another foundation, fairness, is relevant for those who speak out about corruption, including bribery, theft and nepotism. These are all violations of fairness.

So far so good. But whistleblowers come up against some of the other foundations. They are seen to be disloyal (to their employers), undermining authority (of their bosses) and sometimes transgressing on things considered sacred (such as when revealing confidential information). Haidt’s framework suggests that whistleblowers can gain support from some foundations of morality but are up against instinctive responses based on others.

At this point it is worth remembering the rider-elephant metaphor. Few people sit around scrutinising the bases of their own morality. Rather, their ideas of right and wrong are intuitive: they react with their gut and then search for rational justifications for their feelings. So if someone’s morality is strongly shaped by respect for authority, they may react emotionally against a co-worker who breaks ranks and then find reasons for their antagonism.

Sometimes there are multiple sources of authority. For example, a person can accept the authority of church leaders or seek a higher authority in the teachings of spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. However, the rider-elephant factor enters in here: because most teachings can be interpreted in various ways, the rider can find ways of justifying the elephant’s actions. For example, even when religious texts oppose killing, most religious leaders allow participation in war, using various rationalisations.

However, it seems too simple to say that whistleblowers put a priority on care, fairness and liberty (moral priorities for liberals) whereas bosses put a priority on loyalty and authority (which influence conservatives more than liberals). Whistleblowers vary greatly in their beliefs; many are the epitome of the loyal employee. Furthermore, what about all the bystanders, who by their inaction support bosses and let whistleblowers cop it? They are bound to include people driven by a variety of moral precepts.


Various researchers have tried to figure out what, psychologically, makes whistleblowers different from others. Employers would love to know, so they could avoid hiring potential whistleblowers or, having hired one, keep them away from sensitive information. Given the lack of any reliable psychological tests to detect potential whistleblowers, it is safe to assume that psychology is not the key to understanding whistleblowing. This is especially the case for inadvertent whistleblowers, the workers who report a problem, are totally surprised when they experience reprisals, and afterwards say “I was just doing my job.” There are psychological factors involved in this, for example honesty and conscientiousness, but no obvious connection to the foundations of morality traced by Haidt. Or is there?

Care versus loyalty?

Sexual abuse is a violation of the morality of care: those who are vulnerable need to be protected. Speaking out about the abuse, on the other hand, challenges authority and loyalty.

Consider, for example, sexual abuse by clergy. The disturbing reality is that many people in churches knew about it but took little or no action. This can be interpreted as loyalty and authority taking precedence over care. On the other hand, the response of many members of the public, when they learned about the abuse, was completely different: many were horrified and disgusted. As outsiders, their conceptions of loyalty were potentially quite different. They may have had no particular connection to the church, or perhaps had their own loyalty, for example to their children.

But what about authority? Those who are not directly subject to a particular authority may not think deference to it is so important. This observation is compatible with the advice that whistleblowers can gain greatest support from other whistleblowers and from members of the public, for example through media stories.

So morality based on authority seems, at least when it applies to whistleblowers, to be quite specific: deference to authority takes precedence mainly when people are directly subject to the authority, as in the case of bosses or church leaders. This deference can also be explained a different way: people are afraid of the consequences of bucking authority. They might lose their job or, just as worrying, be subject to reprisals such as reprimands, harassment and ostracism. It might seem that fear is a fundamental factor in this dimension of morality.

Loyalty to what?

For me, this raises another question. Why should the two factors of loyalty and authority be tied to the organisation where a person works? In terms of evolution, humans lived in groups whose very survival often depended on banding together. Dissent was potentially dangerous, so it could have been advantageous to attack or expel those who challenged the group’s leaders or threatened its cohesion.

However, many groups today are a far cry from the groups in human prehistory, which were often quite small and probably never much more than a few hundred people in size. Working for a government or corporation with thousands of employees is not the same, neither in scale nor in the danger to the organisation of a bit of dissent.

This suggests to me that although loyalty is a key factor in morality, how loyalty is assigned remains open. Inside a school, for example, a pupil might be loyal to a peer group, a sporting team, a teacher or the school as a whole. In a corporation, a worker might be loyal to a work team, a union, professional peers in the field, a particular boss or the company as a whole. The possibility that loyalty is not automatic suggests that it is worth looking at the methods by which organisations foster it.

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

It’s worth considering each of Haidt’s six foundations for morality and asking, what can be done, by whistleblowers and their supporters, to change gut reactions to whistleblowing so it is more valued? The foundations of care, fairness and liberty are ones that should create favourable attitudes towards whistleblowers. The message is to continually emphasise care for others when speaking out about hazards to the public, emphasise fairness when speaking out about corruption, and emphasise liberty — resistance to domination — when speaking out about threats from government or corporate power.

Those three foundations are the easy ones for whistleblowers, namely ones where they have a natural advantage. The other three foundations are more challenging: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Loyalty to the employer is commonly expected. Whistleblowers violate this sense of loyalty: they are seen as traitors. Are there other ways to assign loyalty to which whistleblowers could appeal? One possibility is loyalty to the mission of the organisation, not to the organisation itself. Of course organisational leaders say they are pursuing the mission, so distinguishing between the mission and the organisation is hard to sell.


Another possibility of an alternative loyalty is to other workers, especially when they are supportive of each other, as in work teams or unions. Instead of speaking out as an individual, a worker concerned about abuses could instead build networks and alliances first, gaining support in order to promote collective action. This is not easy, but does have a prospect of fostering a different assignment of loyalties.

Then there is authority, a moral foundation that whistleblowers almost inevitably challenge. Questioning the boss’s authority is difficult, whether by direct confrontation or by reporting problems to the boss’s boss, higher officials or watchdog bodies. Is there any different line of authority that can be an alternative source of legitimacy? One possibility is the authority of laws. If bosses are violating the law, they are violating legal authority. The trouble is that by the time legal sanctions are applied — if they ever are — it is too late for the whistleblower. After all, corrupt operators do not declare they are breaking the law. Indeed, they commonly allege that whistleblowers are criminals, by violating terms of employment, confidentiality agreements and the like.

One of the advantages of whistleblower laws is that they give legitimacy to whistleblowers. Even though the laws may give little protection in practice and, even worse, give a false sense of security, their very existence may help undermine the assumption that authority is always right.


Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation of special significance to many political conservatives. If corruption is stigmatised, then whistleblowers can draw on this moral foundation. This is suggested by the expressions “clean hands” and “dirty hands,” referring to honest and dishonest individuals. Whistleblowers can assist their cause by avoiding any activity that can be easily stigmatised as dishonest or unsavoury. By the same token, employers regularly manipulate the sanctity foundation by trying to stigmatise the whistleblower, by spreading rumours (sexual misbehaviour is a favourite allegation) and by treating the whistleblower as tainted, not to be trusted or even spoken to. Ostracism — cutting off personal relationships — is in essence to treat a person as dangerous and even contagious.

When whistleblowers join together with others, and obtain support from bystanders, it is far more difficult to stigmatise them. There is protection in numbers.

Considering the various foundations of morality thus provides some direction for whistleblowers and their supporters.

  • When appropriate, emphasise violations of care, fairness, and liberty.
  • Search for alternative bases for loyalty and authority.
  • Try to assign stigma to wrongdoers.
  • Be prepared for the tactics used to turn these moral foundations against whistleblowers.

Brian Martin

More information

I haven’t tried to provide sources for many of the generalisations I’ve made about whistleblowers. For more information see my book Whistleblowing and my site on suppression of dissent.

PS I’ve applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:


Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Steven Howard, Nicola Marks and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback on drafts.

I am vice president of Whistleblowers Australia but my views here do not necessarily represent those of others in the organisation.

Comments from Kim Sawyer

[Kim was a whistleblower at two Australian universities, and has been active on whistleblowing issues for many years.]

Excellent analysis – corresponds to the thoughts I’ve had over a long period of time. Haidt’s prescription of the rider-elephant dichotomy and the six foundations of morality are insightful. Your application of those foundations to whistleblowing is spot on. Two general comments, and then some specific comments from my experience.

First, whistleblowing acts to elevate the conflict between the foundations. It brings morality into focus for everyone; the whistleblower, the respondent, the bystanders. The foundations are like latent characteristics, and whistleblowing becomes the realization of those characteristics so that an individual has to now make a choice. It’s like going to the ballot box, you have to now choose between fairness and loyalty to the institution.

Secondly, one aspect which could be highlighted more is risk. Everyone, whistleblower, respondent and bystander, assesses their risks. Risk minimization takes over – that is, self-interest. The bystander may see the same unfairness as the whistleblower, but they also see the risk to themselves. You could say that these six foundations are a portfolio, and the whistleblower and bystander assign different weights to different foundations. My sense is that the bystander will always converge to the less risky portfolio which is loyalty to authority.

Some specific comments from my own experience

  1. For me, fairness was always the important factor. In both whistleblowing cases, I chose fairness over loyalty to an unfair authority. And it correlates with my political leanings which are progressive. Of course, there was also a sense of professional responsibility, that a professor should act in the long-term interests of the institution and of higher education in general. Obviously, I took my professional responsibilities too seriously.
  2. The two cases I was involved with highlighted the singularity of whistleblowing, but from vastly different starting points. In both cases though, the institution tried to replace the loyalty of colleagues to me by loyalty to the institution. This strategy emphasises the whistleblower and not the whistleblowing; the weaknesses of the whistleblower and not the foundational issues were highlighted.
  3. Another issue is the conflicting loyalties within the whistleblower. I had loyalty to both universities, but the loyalty was principally to the long-term, not to the short-term management. Whistleblowing involves a lot of internal conflict for a whistleblower between fairness and loyalty to authority. Fairness won out for me.

An online mobbing

Tom Flanagan was mobbed online. His experience provides several sorts of lessons.

Tom Flanagan
Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist, worked for 45 years at the University of Calgary. He became a prominent public figure, appearing on television and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. He also had experience in the political system, having served as campaign manager for several politicians seeking office.

Along the way, Flanagan made some enemies. Much of his research related to First Nations and their claims over land, and he took a position contrary to activists in the area. Flanagan’s political leanings might be characterised as conservative: he had managed campaigns for conservative politicians.

On 27 February 2013, Flanagan gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Unknown to him, some First Nation activists attended and planned to use the talk to discredit him. They secretly recorded his talk and asked him a question about an extraneous topic, about which he had once made a passing comment: child pornography.

In the several hours it took Flanagan to drive home the next morning, a social media storm blew up, leaving his reputation in tatters. An extract of his talk, out of context, had been posted on YouTube with the misleading tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Before long, he was widely denounced, including by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, for whom Flanagan had once been campaign manager, by the premier of Alberta, and by numerous mainstream media outlets, with front-page stories.

MacDougall tweet
A hostile tweet

Flanagan soon lost many of the connections he had built up over the years. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cancelled his contract and his own university put out a weak-kneed media release.

Several things about this storm of protest especially annoyed Flanagan. First, he had only made passing comments about child pornography; it wasn’t a topic he had carefully investigated. Second, he had been speaking to an academic audience, in his teacher role in which he tried to stimulate thinking about the topic, but his enemies had treated it as a political opportunity to catch him out and discredit him.

Third, his views on child pornography had been seriously misrepresented. He opposed child pornography, and had only said that penalties for merely viewing it (in Canada, a minimum of several months in prison) might be too stiff. Fourth, those who denounced him and his views had not waited to hear Flanagan’s perspective before rushing to make public comment.

Vulnerability to online mobbing

Mobbing is collective bullying. It’s when a group of people combine to attack a target by abuse, undermining, sidelining, defaming and otherwise causing harm to a person’s morale and reputation. Most commonly, mobbing occurs in workplaces, when a group of workers — usually including the boss, though not always — use verbal and physical methods against a fellow worker. Flanagan experienced a different sort of mobbing. His attackers were online, whereas his colleagues were largely supportive of him.

Flanagan in his book Persona Non Grata (discussed below) says several factors were involved in the online mobbing he experienced. One is that the news cycle has sped up enormously. Before the Internet, it would take a day or two for a story to be taken up widely. Now it can occur in minutes. In the face of a crowd baying for blood, politicians and public bodies did not want to wait a day for claims to be checked out. Instead, they made statements immediately to reduce the potential harm to themselves of being seen as sympathetic to Flanagan’s alleged views.

Another factor is that Flanagan had enemies who were unscrupulous. They set him up with a leading question, made a recording without telling him, produced a clip omitting context, posted it on YouTube with a misleading label and started raising the alert about it. Most people never acquire enemies like this. Flanagan, by being a public commentator who was willing to challenge orthodox views in some areas, was vulnerable.

A third factor in Flanagan’s case was moral panic, which is widespread alarm about an issue out of all proportion to its actual harm. In his book, Flanagan traces the evolution of moral panics over child sexual abuse, including claims about Satanic rituals at US preschools and claims based on recovered memories, in which innocent workers and parents were charged with crimes and some of them imprisoned despite lack of any material evidence. Child pornography, he says, is the latest version of this genre of moral panic. By making comments questioning the severe penalties for viewing child pornography, Flanagan entered territory in which the merest association with a topic can create a stigma.


Finally, Flanagan says online mobbing occurs because so few people check out the facts before passing judgement. Hundreds of people who didn’t know Flanagan personally were willing to condemn him without hearing his side of the story. Even worse, some individuals who knew him well, sometimes for many years, condemned him without hearing his side first. The rush to judgement overwhelmed their critical capacity: they assumed he was guilty as charged and apparently were afraid of being seen to support him, so they joined the attack.


Flanagan says that if he had been expecting an attack and had been closely monitoring social media, he might have been able to organise resistance at the very beginning and prevent the worst consequences. However, his attackers had operated surreptitiously. While driving home, listening to music, he received initial word of the media storm, but was not well placed to mount a concerted response. Anyway, why should someone like him — an academic who had just given a guest lecture at another university — have to be constantly monitoring social media just in case of adverse comments?

When he got home, he discovered the scale and seriousness of the attack and started responding. Luckily, he still had friends and supporters, and he was able to write explanatory articles in several influential publications. Furthermore, his colleagues at the University of Calgary were largely supportive. Flanagan, having been a campaign manager for several political candidates, knew quite a lot about media dynamics and management, far more than some others who have been targets of virtual mobbing. Even so, he felt overwhelmed, noting that a rushed response, while under siege and before he obtained full information, might make things even worse.

One of Flanagan’s sympathisers arranged an opportunity to write a book, and that is what he did. Before the end of the year, he finished writing Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014). Flanagan had written many previous books, so he was quite capable of such a rapid yet considered response.


Persona Non Grata

Flanagan’s book is a powerful account of his experiences and an indictment of his attackers. One thing that makes the book powerful is his clear, engaging narrative. His treatment is careful and measured, with some degree of outrage to be sure, but more along the lines of being a concerned investigation into a problem about which he has first-hand experience.

By being clear, informative, calm and readable, Persona Non Grata will reach audiences who had never heard about Flanagan before and who would be unsympathetic to his political views. I wrote an article, “When you’re criticised,” on how to respond to attacks, recommending writing a response that is clear, calm and factual, and that is what Flanagan has done in his book.

One of the features of Persona Non Grata is a chapter on penalties for possessing child pornography. As he describes, he had never had more than a passing interest in this topic, but because a false representation of his views was the pretext for mobbing him, he started investigating further. He addresses various arguments and, while expressing his abhorrence at the production of child pornography, and his personal distaste for it, he affirms his previous tentative view that mandatory jail sentences for only possessing or viewing child pornography may be excessive. This is his careful, considered riposte to those who mobbed him.

Academic freedom

In the urgency of the initial online mobbing, the University of Calgary, Flanagan’s long-time employer, issued a statement that was pathetically weak. Flanagan was especially disappointed that an academic institution would put out such a statement without waiting a few extra hours to consult with him. So in Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes a chapter to academic freedom.

He gives one of the most cogent accounts of the arguments for academic freedom in the classroom that I have read. Most studies of academic freedom focus on research, inquiry and public comment. Flanagan, in giving attention to teaching, spells out the justification for academics being given the opportunity to teach what they want in the way they want, as well as to speak out on issues of public importance. He is well aware that academics are inhibited and constrained in various ways, and gives good reasons to continue claiming academic freedom as an important contribution to students and society.

Professors have to have room to discover what works well for them, in their discipline, with their personality, with their particular bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Typical undergraduate students at a large university will be exposed to perhaps three dozen instructors in the course of getting a bachelor’s degree. Out of those three dozen, they will probably find a small handful that seemed especially memorable and another handful that seemed like a complete waste of time or worse. But the variety gives all students a chance to find at least a few inspirational professors whose memory can be cherished for a lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, the student has been cheated. (pp. 162–163)

Flanagan tells about some of the students in his classes over the years, and what careers they have entered, many of them taking different political trajectories than Flanagan himself.


Quite a number of individuals have been caught in a whirlwind of online abuse and condemnation, which harms their reputations and careers far out of proportion to their alleged misdemeanours, as astutely described by one of the leading researchers into academic mobbing, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues. Tom Flanagan has produced the most insightful and readable account available of what it is like to be a target of an online mob. In Persona Non Grata he has shown how to rise above the abuse and respond in a calm, reflective fashion that is the exact opposite of the way he was treated.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Zoë Barker and Ian Miles for helpful feedback on drafts.