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When Are Our Actions Morally Praiseworthy?

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What makes one person speak out and blow the whistle on wrongdoing while another remains silent? Is it a “moral sense,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, that instinctively motivates a person’s thoughts and actions? Is it motivated by avoiding harm to others?

The other day a reader sent in a question to my website asking if she should call the authorities on her neighbor who had apparently dumped old containers of household paint in the two acres behind her property that backs up against the reader’s property. The reader knew her neighbor hadn’t seen her. The reader was torn on what is the right thing to do. She got along with the neighbor, whose kids sometimes baby-sat. She didn’t want to rock the boat. But, she knew of the potential dangers.

I didn’t subject her to one of my lectures on right versus wrong. I didn’t quote philosophy. I just tried to focus her attention on what would be her intention in blowing the whistle on her neighbor’s action. I did start by reminding her loyalty to another is admirable but not at the cost of harming others.

Whistleblowing is a personal choice. Whistleblowing always involves an actual or at least declared intention to prevent something bad that would otherwise occur. It always involves information that would not ordinarily be revealed. Most ethicists agree whistleblowing is an ethical action. According to the “standard theory” on whistleblowing, whistleblowing is morally required when it is required at all: people have a moral obligation to prevent serious harm to others if they can do so with little costs to themselves.

The noted philosopher, Immanuel Kant, speculated on ethics by considering whether a person deserves moral praise for a given action. This depends on the person's intentions. If the person is acting from some ulterior motive, for personal gain or revenge against another party, then that person does not deserve moral praise, even for an action that otherwise appears morally good. When a person acts for some personal gain, that person does not deserve moral praise because the action is a self-interested action, not a moral action. It was not done to do the morally proper thing; it was done for some sort of gain. Kant argues that no actions done for personal gain deserve moral praise. They are not morally good actions, although they might be good from some other point of view and might be morally permitted. Kant believed that only actions done from a morally proper motive deserve moral praise.

The ‘Make a Difference Principle’ means that one has good reason to believe that blowing the whistle will lead to changes in the person’s actions. But, how are we to know this at the time of whistleblowing? We can’t fully predict whether the neighbor will stop the illegal dumping, continue the unethical practice, or even dump the toxic waste on our property for revenge.

So, what was my advice? I started  by asking her how she would feel if the illegal dumping persisted and, over time, it became a health hazard to humans, animals, and plants if they encounter these toxins buried in the ground, in steam runoff, in groundwater that supplies drinking water, or in floodwaters, as happened after Hurricane Katrina.

Ethical behavior requires long-term thinking. One common reason people do bad things is they perceive a short-term advantage to do so. Maybe the neighbor was too lazy or too disinterested to take the used paint to a household hazardous waste facility.

Dumping toxic waste is arguably one of the worst things a person can do especially since we now know the potential for harm. What’s worse, taking no action allows the practices to continue unabated. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.   

I find that most people want to do the right thing but may not have the ethical reasoning skills to do so. That’s why I told my neighbor to think, how would she feel if her actions (inaction) became known throughout the community. Would she be proud to defend it? What if it appeared on the front pages of the community newspaper? What if her kids find out about it? In other words, evaluate your actions in life by thinking about how others will view you as a person. Are your actions morally praiseworthy or dictated my self-interest and self-deception?

I leave you with one final thought. Aristotle said: "Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids."

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 9, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: