Confucius and the Whistleblower

Lisanto/Stone carving, Taipei

He never thought of himself as a hero. He liked his work, he liked his collaborators, and if he had any ambitions, it was to rise through the ranks and enjoy the esteem of those around him. But one day, a shocking discovery about the organization challenged everything he thought he stood for. He tried to ignore it—to pretend as if nothing had changed. But his conscience gnawed at him, until one day he realized he had to quit. He had no choice but to expose this injustice to the world.

This is one of the archetypal stories of our culture. From Martin Luther to Edward Snowden, we celebrate the whistleblower: the person who takes on great risks to quit their position, expose wrongdoing, and call on the public to act. When their stories are told, the whistleblower’s courage and good intentions are without question. Even a failed whistleblower is a prophetic voice against injustice. 

The familiar script of the whistleblower is founded on several important claims about how society works. The whistleblower makes information public in order to create a political response. In the immediate aftermath, journalists and politicians are trusted to use this information to further investigate and expose corruption, and to bring the powerful culprits to justice. By spreading that information widely, “people power” also comes into play. At the ballot box, voters can punish either the culprits themselves or the politicians who allowed them to operate. The whistleblower operates within the assumptions of Western liberal democracy—both its political mythos and its real institutions.

As soon as the whistleblower resigns, he is just another face in the crowd, without connections or influence, with only a bit of knowledge in his head. In practice, successful whistleblowers have therefore cultivated relationships with influential media figures as a critical step in spreading their message. 

Daniel Ellsberg gained whistleblower status when he published over two decades worth of documents on U.S. involvement in Vietnam and proved that several administrations had intentionally misled Congress and the media. He collaborated with The New York Times on the story, ensuring that coverage would fall under first amendment protections for the media. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, both renowned whistleblowers in the late 2000s and 2010s, relied on media allies to inject their messages into public awareness. In Assange’s case, he reduced the middleman role by founding WikiLeaks to publish documents independently.

Snowden’s exposure of global surveillance programs run by the National Security Administration and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance involved close collaboration with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and other journalists. These contacts allowed him to secure the publication of documents in The Guardian and other prominent publications. The 2016 leaks of the Panama Papers were large enough that they required the Süddeutsche Zeitung to enlist the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to review them. Without the ability to mobilize trained and connected media contacts, these prominent whistleblower operations could not have succeeded.

Often, popular retellings of successful whistleblowers skip the actual process by which they achieved their goals, or the question of whether they managed to fundamentally change things at all. Instead, we get a fast-paced montage of news spreading across social media and cafe conversations, as everyone learns about the scandal and the people demand justice. 

But both the myths and the realities of the whistleblower operate on a common moral logic. One of the assumptions of the whistleblower is that it is better to quit an organization to maintain “clean hands” than to try reforming it from within. To work in an organization doing bad things is to be complicit in its wrongdoing. If you realize your organization is morally compromised, it becomes imperative to make a clean break as soon as possible. This is why we celebrate whistleblowers above those quietly trying to reform the system, and why whistleblowers consider their former colleagues—still compromised by association—valid targets of attack.

This logic seems to work on deontological grounds. If we assume that such involvement is an unacceptable evil, there is no choice but to leave and expose the wrongdoing. But does this actually lead to better institutions?

The move also conflicts with a number of moral instincts. Who is the better man: an executive in a corrupt company who effectively fights bad practices in his department, or one who quits in order to read Chandler novels by the beach? The latter has cleaner hands—he’s not drawing a paycheck from the dirty company—but he has also done nothing to mitigate the problem. Meanwhile, the executive in the trenches might actually do so by continuing to work within a corrupt environment. It’s hard to support an ethic that judges people by their association and not by their impact on actually making society better. 

Conflating virtue with disloyalty also has unintended consequences. To the extent that loyalty becomes suspect, especially in a highly dysfunctional or corrupt society, unprincipled rebels learn to claim that they’re merely fighting for justice. In reaction, institutions will naturally attempt to protect themselves by insisting on wasteful signals of conformity. Strictly applying the criterion of “clean hands” and of necessary disloyalty would mean an exodus of those who are scrupulous into marginal positions, while the unscrupulous enjoy a monopoly on the commanding heights of the economy and of the state. 

Of course, reality usually doesn’t play out like this. In practice, grudgingly or otherwise, we accept that it’s often the best option to use our position to improve an imperfect world. But this implies a different moral logic to that of the whistleblower—one concerned with function and with how to properly navigate relationships that are morally compromised without abandoning them completely.

In Warring States-era China—no stranger to unjust or incompetent government—Confucius taught an ethic of remonstrance. When confronted with wrongdoing by one’s superior, instead of dramatically quitting and exposing it to the world, he taught that the proper course of action is to firmly but respectfully correct him, with reference to shared values. The Classic of Filial Piety (孝经) recounts his advice:

Zeng asked, “Can simple obedience to your father be called filiality?”


Confucius replied, “What on earth are you saying? If the Emperor of old had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him, he would not lose his empire even if he had no inkling of the Way. If a duke had five remonstrating ministers, he would not lose his fief even if he had no inkling of the Way. If the head of a great house had three remonstrating ministers, he would not lose his estate even if he had no inkling of the Way. A gentleman with a remonstrating friend would not lose his reputation; a father with a remonstrating son would not be ensnared by unrighteousness. So, with regards to unrighteous conduct, a son must remonstrate with his father, and a minister must remonstrate with his lord. And since remonstrance is a duty, how can simple obedience be considered filial?”

This approach also takes a great deal of courage. When the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty felt that the Confucian philosopher Mencius encouraged too much temerity in ministers towards rulers, he ordered Mencius’s writings expunged from the civil service exams and the removal of a tablet honoring Mencius from the Confucian temple. His minister Qian Tang opposed him. Before remonstrating with the emperor, he dragged his own coffin into court, saying “it would be an honor to die for Mencius.” The emperor ultimately relented, although with the caveat that new editions of Mencius’s work would remove some of the offending lines. Qian Tang himself became an exemplar of the sort of bold forthrightness that Mencius advocated.

This concept is not specifically Asian. One famous modern Western example was the mission-command (Auftragstaktik) philosophy of the Prussian and German militaries in the 19th century. Leaders were trained to allow their subordinates a high degree of independence in interpreting orders to achieve operational goals. Subordinates, in turn, had to maintain sound judgment and the trust of their superiors. This culture allowed commanding officers on the ground to override the specifics of their superiors’ plans, if circumstances no longer made them the best way to achieve an operational goal.

Similarly, lean manufacturing techniques—used all over the world—empower subordinates to make decisions on the factory floor, up to even halting production in the event of serious problems. Management is then tasked with applying and systematizing the feedback from line workers. These decentralized systems can be extremely effective at managing complex challenges, but an oft-unspoken prerequisite is a culture of trust and willingness to confront superiors with problems. Institutions adopting decentralized structures while lacking a culture of effective remonstrance are at risk of either anarchy as subordinates pursue their own agendas, or strategic blindness as subordinates bury problems rather than bring them for discussion. They therefore often resort to a centralized approach that is less efficient but more predictable.

What makes remonstrance work in practice? The foundation of Confucius’s social philosophy is that relationships are the central element of functional institutions. When relationships become adversarial or low-trust, it is only a matter of time before customs or laws start to decay as well. Laws can never substitute for proper, virtuous relationships.

The courageous remonstrator is not a rebel by temperament. The moment of remonstrance can be dramatic, as with Qian Tang, but it is the social capital built up over long collaboration that gives it weight. Even in the moment of confrontation, he rebels to the minimum extent possible. He forcefully expresses his views, but with respect, without implicitly questioning the superior’s position or character. Confucius counseled children: “Remonstrate gently with your parents when you must. If they are disinclined to listen, remain reverent but do not abandon your purpose” (Analects 4:18). By confining the disagreement to policy and explicitly reinforcing the ties of loyalty that already exist, the remonstrator maximizes the chance that the superior will treat the criticism not as an attack but as a sincere concern from someone sharing the same goals and values.

There’s a laser-like precision in this approach. Instead of publicizing your accusations and setting out in search of patrons who can help you oppose your former superiors or collaborators, you leverage the social capital you’ve spent years cultivating. The personal relationship allows you to direct the attention of someone in the institution who actually has the authority to reverse the decision. In a world teeming with anonymous disinformation, this is a powerful way to cut through the noise and reach one of a handful of people who can make a difference.

After the confrontation, the subordinate might still resign, especially if he senses that his case is falling on deaf ears. But resignation is not the moment of moral triumph. It is not the moment he steps out of the dirty institution and becomes pure again. The moral triumph is when he did his utmost to change the institution from the inside. Compared to that supreme effort, whether he chooses to retire afterward is a matter of personal taste.

Putting relationships at the center of moral focus also forces a person to think about which institutions to join. It makes it clear that joining an institution that has lost its way with the aim of changing it from the inside is a fool’s errand. Without shared values or real ingroup loyalty with your superiors, you have no leverage with which to make a moral stand. Lacking that leverage, your talents will simply be used to further the institution’s own ends, without providing any avenue for critique or reform. Confucius once praised an official for his keen sense of when not to join an institution: “A superior man was Qu Boyu! When government was virtuous, he served; when government was corrupt, he could roll up his principles and keep them in his heart.” (Analects 15:7)

Even among institutions with admirable aims, discernment is necessary. The remonstrance framework highlights how workplace relationships, especially deep, personal relationships, are a valuable source of capital. These should be weighed alongside compensation packages and workplace perks. A company with rapid turnover or an impersonal culture may otherwise be a good place to work, but the employee should be aware that he’s giving up his best chance to influence the organization.

The call to remonstrance is a powerful call to daily courage. While whistleblowing requires courage in extraordinary situations, remonstrance teaches us to practice the courage to speak up about everyday problems. In the risk-averse professional culture that predominates today, there is a tendency for workers to keep their heads down and not raise problems until they become unignorable. Similarly, there’s a mirror-image tendency of managers to let personnel problems simmer quietly until they suddenly put the problem employee on a performance-improvement plan as a prelude to firing. Until the crisis comes, such a workplace may seem nice. But it’s a niceness born of cowardice and mistrust. Remonstrance ethics naturally prizes both the courage to speak up and the culture of trust that makes it possible. It is the moral counterpart of the culture of continuous improvement that has become standard in advanced manufacturing.

Times change, technologies change, but human nature remains the same. No less than in Confucius’s time, we live in a world in which institutional wrongdoing is ever-present. The framework of remonstrance by the loyal first officer is a powerful tool for effectively correcting injustice in our daily lives. By cultivating respect and compassion in our working lives, we are building up a reserve of social capital that we can call on in moments of moral crisis. And by courageously speaking up to our superiors, we can effectively confront the decision-makers most likely to have the power and inclination to create lasting change.

And looking beyond the individual, the ethic of remonstrance envisions a culture of moral accountability, in which penetrating ethical questions are taken seriously in an environment of mutual respect and personal loyalty. It is our daily faithful presence in the institutions that would make such a world possible. Fighting injustice is no longer the preserve of a lonely few whistleblowers, but as a goal carried forward by a hundred hands.

Peter Wei is a physician in State College, Pennsylvania.