Is Whistleblowing a Form of Conscientious Objection? | Humanities & Social Sciences

Is Whistleblowing a Form of Conscientious Objection?

Tuesday Seminar
Manohar Kumar
Date and Time: 
Tue, 27/09/2016 - 12:00am
02:57 PM to 04:27 PM
HSS Committee Room (MS 610)


Veils of secrecy break down the reason sharing function of democracy. Evidence of wrongs is sole proprietorship of those having access to classified information. Individuals are denied access to information that would allow them to assess the circumstances that lead to their right limitations (if the information concerns certain wrongs). They are injured in their capacity as right holders. In these conditions the system of rights and public accountability can only be ensured through acts of whistleblowing. This paper explores whether whistleblowing constitutes a distinctive category within a general theory of dissent. Especially the paper asks whether whistleblowing is a form of conscientious objection. To this end the paper is divided in four parts. The first part outlays elements of whistleblowing, and the general conditions of communicative felicity that makes an act of whistleblowing successful. The second part qualifies whistleblowing within a general theory of dissent by analyzing what kind of action it represents. The third part provides an account of conscientious objection. The final part then evaluates the elements of whistleblowing and conditions of communicative felicity against specific characteristics of successful conscientious objection.

The paper argues that whistleblowing is not conscientious objection on the criteria of legality, communicative felicity, public interest, function, and mode of action that defines a successful act of whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is not conscientious objection, since it demands a pro-active engagement in the critique of existing legislation. On the contrary, the minimal requirement for conscientious objection to be successful is a withdrawal of services or consent, refusal to participate in harms of the organization. It is a moral act to the extent that the perceived harm does not comply with the moral universe of the person, and any engagement with the act militates against deeply held convictions. These convictions need not be public in character or need not be elucidated in democratic terms; on the contrary some of these convictions might be un-democratic. A conscientious refusal merely demands a respect of deeply held beliefs of the agent and requires an exemption from the services they are supposed to offer. Contrary to this, whistleblowing seeks to uphold democratic norms of transparency and publicity, and affirms the right of the citizens to be aware of wrongness of institutional practices and policies. Thus, whistleblowing represents a critique of institutional practices and ensures democratic accountability. Whistleblowing is thus not an act of conscientious objection since it is a public act done with keeping public interest in mind and intended to address, and if possible correct, wrongs perpetrated against it. The justification of the act is public as it affirms the need for public assessment of the nature of wrongs.


Manohar Kumar is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. His research interests include Liberty and Security, Whistleblowing, Civil Disobedience, and Epistemic Injustice.