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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Whistleblowing and the Bioethicist’s Public Obligations

By D. Robert MacDougall
Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics / Volume 23 / Issue 04 / October 2014, pp 431-442


Bioethicists are sometimes thought to have heightened obligations by virtue of the fact that their professional role addresses ethics or morals. For this reason it has been argued that bioethicists ought to “whistleblow”—that is, publicly expose the wrongful or potentially harmful activities of their employer—more often than do other kinds of employees. This article argues that bioethicists do indeed have a heightened obligation to whistleblow, but not because bioethicists have heightened moral obligations in general. Rather, the special duties of bioethicists to act as whistleblowers are best understood by examining the nature of the ethical dilemma typically encountered by private employees and showing why bioethicists do not encounter this dilemma in the same way. Whistleblowing is usually understood as a moral dilemma involving conflicting duties to two parties: the public and a private employer. However, this article argues that this way of understanding whistleblowing has the implication that professions whose members identify their employer as the public—such as government employees or public servants—cannot consider whistleblowing a moral dilemma, because obligations are ultimately owed to only one party: the public. The article contends that bioethicists—even when privately employed—are similar to government employees in the sense that they do not have obligations to defer to the judgments of those with private interests. Consequently, bioethicists may be considered to have a special duty to whistleblow, although for different reasons than those usually cited.

The entire article is here, behind a paywall.