Category Archives: whistleblowing

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.

Learning from Snowden

A review and commentary on Luke Harding’s book The Snowden Files, with special attention to implications for leaking and whistleblowing

Snowden I want you cropped
In June 2013, spectacular revelations were reported in the news. A secretive US organisation, the National Security Agency, was carrying out extensive spying on people’s electronic communications. This spying was massive. The NSA, according to reports, was collecting just about everything imaginable: emails, phone calls, texts, you name it – from everyone around the world.

The revelations continued for weeks and months. The NSA was spying on US citizens in the US, apparently in violation of the law. It was also spying on foreign leaders. For example, there were reports that the NSA had monitored the personal mobile phone of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, and the phones of many other political leaders.

The stories were broken by the Guardian, a well-known British newspaper and media group. The Guardian‘sinformation came from an NSA insider who had leaked vast amounts of NSA top-secret material. This was unheard of. The NSA did not have leaks.

Several days later, the leaker went public. He was Edward Snowden, a 29-year old NSA contractor who looked even younger than his age, and he was in Hong Kong.

Snowden said he had released the material because it showed the US government was carrying out massive surveillance, and that this needed to be exposed. He seemed to be sincere.

US government officials were furious. Snowden became a wanted man, and the full power of the US government was deployed in an attempt to arrest him.

If you’ve read Robert Ludlum’s novels about Jason Bourne, or seen the films based on them, starting with The Bourne Identity, you’ll have an idea of how surveillance capacities might be used to track down a rogue agent. Something similar happened in Snowden’s case, but this time in reality rather than fiction. The US government pulled out all stops, not to assassinate Snowden, but to arrest him.

The Snowden files

If you followed the Snowden revelations via news reports, like me, some of the basic points will be clear but how it all hangs together may not be so obvious. For a broader perspective, I recommend Luke Harding’s new book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (London: Guardian Books, 2014). Harding is a journalist for the Guardian and has obtained first-hand information on key events. Just as importantly, Harding writes in an engaging fashion. Parts of the book read like a thriller.

Snowden Files

The Snowden Files covers Snowden’s early online presence, his patriotism, his work for the NSA, his gradual disillusionment due to observing dubious activities carried out in secret, his collection of NSA files and leaking of them to the Guardian, and his experiences as a fugitive. In between the Snowden narrative, Harding tells about the massive spying operations carried out by the NSA and its partners, especially its British equivalent GCHQ. He also tells how the media – especially the Guardian – handled the biggest leak in history in the face of implacable hostility from intelligence agencies and top politicians. Snowden was incredibly brave and shrewd, but so were quite a few others in the story.

Lessons for whistleblowers

Here I offer a few lessons for whistleblowers based on Snowden’s experiences. Although few whistleblowers reveal information warranting international headlines, every effort at speaking out in the public interest is important and hence worth doing as well as possible.

Leaking is revealing inside information, typically to media or sometimes to interested groups. A lot of leaks are from top politicians and bureaucrats. These leaks are everyday operations intended to manipulate public opinion for political or personal purposes.

However, when someone leaks information in the public interest, for example exposing corruption or dangers to the public, top managers typically treat this as a serious breach of trust. Leakers are often called traitors. The double standard is stark: it’s okay for bosses to leak but not for employees.

Whistleblowers are people, typically employees, who speak out in the public interest, and most of the time they reveal their identity immediately, such as when they report a problem to the boss or some internal body. Unfortunately, this is disastrous much of the time: the whistleblowers are attacked – for example ostracised, denigrated, reprimanded, sometimes dismissed – and furthermore their access to information is blocked. As soon as their identity becomes known, they have limited opportunities to collect more information about wrongdoing.

For these reasons, it is often advantageous for whistleblowers to remain anonymous, and to leak information to outside groups, especially to journalists or action groups. The leaking option reduces the risk of reprisals and enables the leaker to remain in the job, gathering information and potentially leaking again. Furthermore, stories based on leaks are more likely to focus on the information, not the leaker.

snowden wbs are heroes

Lesson 1: be incredibly careful

Snowden leaked the most top-secret information of anyone in history, but it wasn’t easy. The lesson from his experiences is that to be a successful leaker, you must be both knowledgeable and incredibly careful. Snowden had developed exceptional computer skills. He was leaking information about state surveillance, and he knew the potential for monitoring conversations and communication. He took extraordinary care in gathering NSA documents and in releasing them. When he contacted journalists, he used secure email. When meeting them, he went to extreme lengths to screen their equipment for surveillance devices. For example, before speaking to journalists, he had them put their phones in a freezer, because the phones might contain monitoring devices.

Few whistleblowers need to take precautions to the level that Snowden did: his enemies were far more determined and technically sophisticated than a typical whistleblower’s employer. Nevertheless, it is worth learning from Snowden’s caution: be incredibly careful.

Lesson 2: choose recipients carefully

Snowden considered potential recipients for his leaks very carefully. He wanted journalists and editors who would treat his disclosures seriously and have the determination to publish them in the face of displeasure by the US government. He decided not to approach US media, which usually are too acquiescent to the government. US media have broken some big stories, but sometimes only after fear of losing a scoop. The story of the My Lai massacre, when US troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians during the Indochina war, was offered to major newspapers and television networks, but they were not interested. In 2004, US television channel CBS initially held back the story about abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by US prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison, at the request of the Pentagon, finally going to air because the story was about to be broken in print.

new-york-times-building-380x285Snowden didn’t approach the New York Times

Snowden decided instead to approach the Guardian, a British media group with a history of publishing stories in the public interest, despite government displeasure. It was a wise choice.

Lesson 3: be persistent

Snowden decided to approach the Guardian, and not just anyone: in late 2012 he contacted the Guardian‘s freelance columnist Glenn Greenwald, noted for his outspoken stands critical of US government abuses, especially surveillance. Snowden sent Greenwald an anonymous email, offering disclosures and asking Greenwald to install encryption software. However, Greenwald – resident in Brazil – was busy with other projects and didn’t get around to it. So Snowden created a video primer for installing the software just to encourage Greenwald to use it. However, even this wasn’t enough to prod the busy Greenwald to act.

Snowden didn’t give up. In January 2013, he next contacted Greenwald’s friend and collaborator Laura Poitras – a fierce critic of the US security state, and a victim of it – who he thought would be interested herself and who would get Greenwald involved. It worked.


The lesson is to be persistent in seeking the right outlet for leaks – and to be careful and patient along the way.

Lesson 4: improve communication skills

Snowden is a quiet, unassuming sort of person. He might be called a nerd. Contrary to some of his detractors, it was not his desire to become a public figure. Despite his retiring nature, Snowden knew what he wanted to say. He refined his key ideas so he could be quite clear when speaking and writing, and he stuck to his message.

Most whistleblowers need good communication skills to be able to get their message across. (In a few cases, leaking documents without commentary might be sufficient.) My usual advice is to write a short summary of the issues, but this isn’t easy, especially when you are very close to the events. Being able to speak well can be just as important, if you have telephone or face-to-face contact with journalists or allies. Many people will judge your credibility by how convincing you sound in speech and writing. Practice is vital, as is feedback on how to improve.

Lesson 5: make contingency plans

Snowden thought carefully what he wanted to achieve and how he was going to go about it. Initially he leaked selected NSA files to journalists to pique their interest and demonstrate his bona fides. After all, who’s going to believe someone sending an email saying they can show the NSA is carrying out massive covert surveillance of citizens and political leaders? After establishing credibility, Snowden then arranged a face-to-face meeting, to hand over the NSA files and help explain them: many of the files were highly technical and not easy for non-specialists to understand.

After the initial stories in the Guardian and the ensuing media storm, Snowden knew that it would be impossible for him to remain in hiding. The US government would do everything possible, technically and politically, to find and arrest him. So Snowden decided to go public, namely to reveal his identity. This would help to add credibility to the revelations by attaching them to a human face.

He did not anticipate every subsequent development: it was not part of a plan to flee Hong Kong and end up in Russia. Even so, Snowden anticipated more of what happened than most whistleblowers, who are often caught unawares by reprisals and stunned by the failure of bosses to address their concerns and of watchdog agencies to be able to protect them.

The lesson from Snowden is to think through likely options, including worst case scenarios, and make plans accordingly.

Is this your escape plan?

Lesson 6: be prepared for the consequences

Snowden knew that leaking NSA documents would make him a wanted man. He was prepared for the worst scenario, arrest and lengthy imprisonment. He knew what he was sacrificing. Indeed, he had left his long-time girlfriend in Hawaii, knowing he might never see her again. He made his decision and followed it through.

So far, Snowden has avoided the worst outcomes, from his point of view. He might have ended up in prison, without access to computers (his greatest fear), perhaps even tortured like military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Still, living in Russia – an authoritarian state, where free speech is precarious – is hardly paradise. Snowden is paying a huge price for his courageous actions. He knew he would, and he remains committed to his beliefs.

Whistleblowers seldom appreciate the venom with which their disclosures will be received. It is hard to grasp that your career might be destroyed, and perhaps also your finances, health and relationships. It is best to be prepared for the worst, just in case. Being prepared often makes the difference between collapsing under the strain and surviving or even thriving in new circumstances.


Reprisals are only partly directed at the whistleblower. The more important audience is other employees, who receive the message that speaking out leads to disastrous consequences.

Snowden has provided a different, somewhat more optimistic message. He has shown that the NSA is not invincible: its crimes can be exposed. He has shown that careful preparation and wise choices can maximise the impact of disclosures. He has stood up in the face of the US government, and continued unbowed. Although few whistleblowers will ever have an opportunity like Snowden, or take risks like he has, there is much to learn from his experiences.

Brian Martin,

This post is reproduced from the July issue of The Whistle.