The discussions in this paper revolve around the following question: “If you were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the town’s medical officer (i. e., a civil servant), what would you do and, why?” A proper response to the question would require an analysis of the key issues in Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People. It will also require a consideration of the factors that could warrant a public officer to go outside of his or her organizational structure to make public a perceived wrong doing in the organization- which is exactly what Dr. Stockmann did. The easy response to the question would be to say that if I were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the chief medical officer of the town, I will adhere to protocol by first reporting my findings to the authorities before contemplating the public option. In other words, it is only when the problem is not resolved internally that I will consider the possibility of alerting the public. But as straight forward as this answer may sound, it however, does not address the core issues in the case. This type of response to the question is merely a pat answer to an important question regarding how a public official should act when confronted with a moral or ethical dilemma of an official nature. But this apart, there is the other issue of providing justification why one would act differently from the way Dr. Stockmann acted. These are the issues this paper sets out to address; the paper seeks, among other things, to adduce reasons why we think Dr. Stockmann’s action was procedurally wrong and why we would have adopted a different approach in dealing with the dilemma that presents itself in the conduct of our official duties. But before we get into the discussion proper, it will be necessary to first undertake a critical analysis of the play itself with a view to clarifying the actions of Dr. Stockmann, the chief protagonist in the play. In doing this, we hope to show whether or not Dr. Stockmann acted in an ethically reasonable way by revealing to the press and the general public his discovery concerning the pollution of the Baths.
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is set in a small coastal town, South of Norway. Dr. Stockmann, the tragic hero and chief protagonist of the play, has just returned home after many years of practicing medicine outside of his home town. Through the influence of his brother, he got appointed as the chief medical officer of the Baths, an idea which originated from him but which his brother (the Mayor of the town acted upon and brought to fruition). The Baths turns out to be the resource centre for the town, that is, the mainstay of the town’s economy, and major source of income. Dr. Stockmann is happy with his job and his service to his people whom he loves with great passion and zeal. Through his knowledge of science, Dr. Stockmann carries out an independent investigation on the health situation of the waters of the Baths. He had taken water samples and had the sample analyzed in a laboratory, only to discover that the Baths had been contaminated by bacteria and germs. It is important to mention here that this investigation was carried out neither with the knowledge of the Mayor who is also Chairman of the Governing Body of the Baths nor other members of the committee. In other words, the medical officer acted outside of official or legal backing. The question would be to ask if the medical officer, as a civil servant, acted in a procedurally appropriate way by conducting the test without authorization. The answer to this question will undoubtedly be divisive. Some are likely to argue that this was an inappropriate way to act; others might argue on the other hand that as the chief medical officer of the town it lied within his fort to do what he did. But we need not dwell much on this issue for now. We shall come back to it later on in the discussion. But perhaps, the real crucial issue is with the way Dr. Stockmann handled the result of the investigation he conducted. The result of the analysis showed, according to Dr. Stockmann, that the Baths was contaminated; that the waters were infected with germs and bacteria. As a civil servant, how should Dr. Stockmann handle this piece of crucial or information at his disposal? Should he first tell the authorities and Committee in charge of the Baths? Or should he alert the public to warn them of the health danger they were exposed to? These are the two crucial questions that underlie the play.
Dr. Stockmann chooses the second option above second option; that is, he elects to make known to the public and the media, the result of findings before discussing it with the authorities and Management of the Baths Committee! This then is the crucial issue for our discussion. Dr. Stockmann’s not obtaining official permission for his investigation might be pardoned if he handled the result in an ethically balanced way. By not carrying his superior officers along in his actions, and by breaking the official protocol for handling organizational problems, seem to have erred on the wrong side of the law. And by parity of reasoning too, he seem to have set himself in an unnecessary head on collision with officialdom by taking organizational matters into the public domain without having exhausted the internal mechanism of dispute resolution. Dr. Stockmann’s action will surely generate a plethora of questions. Was he naïve in doing what he did, or was he motivated by ambition and a vindictive attitude in alerting the public about his findings before making a formal report to the Baths committee? In administrative ethics what Dr. Stockmann did is what is known as “whistle blowing.” Before we go further in the discussion, it is important to ask what the proper procedural channels are for public servants to resolve organizational conflicts before contemplating the whistle blowing option. Before seeking answers to these questions, it will be appropriate to make a few general remarks about the idea of “whistle blowing.”
Whistle blowing refers to the act of reporting wrong doing in the organization. James Svara makes a distinction between the internal mechanism of dealing with a perceived wrongdoing on the part of a public official(s) and sounding an alarm publicly. According to him, “when a staff member becomes aware of a problem within a public organization, the active responses are to raise the matter internally or to alert someone outside the organization” (2007:115). Technically speaking, the former method is merely the method of internal complaint; only the latter is the act of whistle blowing proper. To blow the whistle is the same thing as making disclosures or “going public” with a complaint about perceived wrongdoings in the organization. According to Burke (1994), such disclosures aim at revealing “malfeasance in office and thwart unethical and illegal activities that detract from the pursuit of proper public purpose.” The crucial in this distinction is that the official who is taking the action to report on a wrong doing has the choice of either adopting the internal procedure for dealing with organizational problems or following the “deviant” route of going public. We are not using the word “deviant” in a pejorative sense; rather, bearing in mind the type of complications involved in the issue of externalizing organizational misdemeanors, and following Svara (2007: 115), the act of whistle blowing refers to “the classic act of deviance for an administrator.”
Dr. Stockmann’s action, which we have described above, can yield to various types of interpretation. In one breath, his action portrays him as a naïve idealist who is at once impetuous and flippant. In another breath, he comes across as an enthusiastic fellow who loves his town and his fellow humans with a never-dying love. His love for his people motivates him to serve and warn them of the danger posed by the waters of the Baths. But the problem is that he was not circumspect enough in the way he went about his perceived duty to his native land. He had a too high opinion of the ordinary people- the hoi polloi - to use the language of politics. He assured himself that he had the backing of the so-called “compact majority,” as Aslaksen, the chairman of the Householder’s Association calls the ordinary people in the community. But as he was to discover later, the common people, or the majority are often ignorant and can be easily manipulated by cunning and self-serving politicians. The people, like a wild mob, are often guided by their whimsies rather than reason or any informed idea about reality or truth. Dr. Stockmann discovered these truths a little too late! There is also a revolutionary fervor in Dr. Stockmann’s actions as he also aimed at reforming the community by seeking to mobilize the people against the perceived corrupt leaders of the community.
But whichever way we choose to view Dr. Stockmann’s actions, there are some important elements, which according to Stone (2005), are crucial to an understanding of not only his actions but of the key issues in the play, An Enemy of the People. These elements can be captured under the following broad headings: (i) Truth versus loyalty and obedience to authority, (ii) Individualism versus conformity, and (iii) the morality of whistle blowing. A fourth element which is equally significant is the idea of “public interest.” These four elements are crucial to our understanding of this political/ethical play under purview in this paper. Hence, in adopting them, we shall use them as a foil in giving perspective to the discussion that follows in the paper. Our analysis should yield an answer or justification for the choice we make in the paper as well. Our choice can be summarized in the following ways: one is that if we were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the town’s medical officer, we would seek official permission to carry out the type of investigation which he did on the waters of the Baths, and second is that we will first discuss with the legal political authorities in charge of the Baths before considering other measures that present themselves for our consideration. In other words, we will exhaust the internal mechanisms for resolving conflicts in the organization before contemplating external routes to conflict management.
i. Truth versus Loyalty and Obedience to Authority
As we have mentioned already, Dr. Stockmann’s knowledge of science helped him to discover that the Baths had been contaminated. He was then faced with the problem of the next course of action to take. Here is a good example of a civil servant being confronted with an ethical problem requiring solution. What is the appropriate thing to do if we are confronted with a problem such as this? Is having knowledge of the “truth” about a moral situation sufficient on its own? Can the “truth” alone by itself set free in this regard? To begin with, was it right for the medical officer to have carried out the investigation without authorization? And when he eventually made the discovery that the Baths was poisoned through bacterial infection, should he not have first reported the matter to the authorities before ever thinking of telling the public? Svara (2007: 105-108), lists some methods that can help guide or improve the quality of ethical problem solving or decision making. Svara tells us that ethical problem solving requires action and analysis. The rational approach model he proposes is divided into three major stages as follows: description, analysis, and decision. What these approaches simply suggest is that we must not only identify the facts of the situation at hand, we must also examine the situation from different perspectives in order to identify the different options open to us, our obligations and responsibilities to ourselves, to our superiors as well as our position and professional role. “The final stage in the model is to make an informed ethical choice and to be able to explain and justify it” (Svara, 2007: 109).
The importance of analysis in ethical decision making cannot be overemphasized. But this alone is not sufficient to resolve ethical dilemmas or problems; rather, analysis must be accompanied by other crucial elements if we are to act appropriately and arrive at reasoned outcome. For Rest et al. (1999: 100-101), there are four psychological components or processes which affect ethical decision making and behaviour. These are: (i) moral sensitivity, (ii) moral judgment, (iii) moral motivation, and (iv) moral character. The first component has to do with being aware of the existence of an ethical problem as well as being sensitive to the consequences that different courses of action could have on all persons involved in the situation; the second involves weighing standards of behaviour as well as choosing the appropriate moral options. The third component reflects the inclination to choose the ethically appropriate alternative while the last component which deals with character and virtue is needed to convert judgment into action in the face of pressure and opposition. Svara (2007: 105) summarizes these ideals graphically this way: “to act ethically, one must be aware of an ethical problem, judge which course of action is most appropriate, be inclined to accept this alternative, and be able to act on the choice and stick with it.” To summarize what we have just described above, in seeking to deal with a problem or dilemma, we need to consider the consequences of our action on ourselves, our colleagues and the organization as a whole. The tendency to act on impulse or on the spur of the moment is always there. But acting rashly may result in loss to us and negative outcome to our organization. As a civil servant and chief medical officer of my town, I would first have counted the cost of my action before thinking of going public- if at all I will go public!
Svara lists some major responsibilities of administrators (whether those in government or nonprofit organization) - responsibilities he says are foundational to identifying the nature of duty of administrators. These responsibilities are relevant to the present discussion. These include their responsibility to (1) serve individuals, (2) be accountable to ‘people’ and promote the public interest, (3) serve their organization, and (4) their political superiors as well as to uphold the law and established policy (Svara, 2007: 4). Dr. Stockmann seems to have been concerned only with that part of the responsibility that requires duty to the people. We shall return to this issue later on when we discuss the idea of public interest. Suffice it to say that Dr. Stockmann allowed emotion rather than “practical considerations, and consequences for self and other stakeholders” in the Baths committee to guide his action (Walker et al., 1995: 403). Applying the rational approach to decision making, or the methodologies that Svara and others scholars have suggested above, is a sure check to the impulse (“gut reaction,” as Svara calls it) to act precipitously (Svara, 2007: 107). A person like Dr. Stockmann may not have been trained to recognize such approaches discussed above. And herein lies the value of ethical training that the scholars emphasize in the literature. Competence in our narrow disciplines or professions does not always translate to competence about administrative requirements or knowledge on how to act with regards to ethical decision making. Perhaps this explains why organizations (both public and private), often organize what is called “refresher courses” for their staff members. Whether or not such courses achieve their set goals is a different matter entirely. But the idea is that civil servants or staff members need an updating of their knowledge on how modern organizations operate or are run. Perhaps such a training or course would have been helpful to someone like Dr. Stockmann who it appears had no formal training on the demands of public office! Without doubt, Dr. Stockmann comes across as a man who is sincere at heart. But he was naïve in placing too much trust in the media and in the common people of the town. He failed in heeding or realizing a truth that is as old as the world itself, which is that the common people- the masses as they are sometimes called- are often credulous, ignorant and given to change. Not only that, they are also subject to all kinds of foibles and can be easily manipulated by wily and crafty political demagogues. The doctor was to discover this truth a little too late when the same people - the “compact majority”- as he called them, declared him a public enemy! Human history has shown that the majority is not always right. On the contrary, the majority people, that is, the masses, can sometimes be gullible, ignorant and easily deceived. One would expect a man of Dr. Stockmann’s intellectual standing to have known this crucial truth! This point to a fundamental weakness often observed in many intellectuals: they are so often too ensconced in the narrowness of their small fields or professions that are oblivious about the fact of Real Politick.
A counterpoise to the above argument is Dr. Stockmann’s failure to recognize or yield to legally constituted authority. Quinlan (1993: 538) reminds us that the ethic of civil servants requires that they “operate in loyalty to and under any instructions of ministers” under whom they serve. The idea here is that whatever detracts from this type of absolute submission by civil servants to constituted authority has the potential to damage the proper ability the public servant has to give service within the accepted system in which he or she operates. Svara makes the same point when he states that public administrators are no “sole practitioners” who set up or have charge of their own practice. Rather, they are people who operate within what he calls “an authority structure.” In other words, public (or civil) servants are not only to work with others to advance institutional goals but also have a responsibility “to make the organization as strong, effective, and ethical as possible” (Svara, 2007: 5). In sum, what these ideas express is the claim that a civil servant is expected to be loyal to constituted authority and to obey the rules governing the civil service structure. Agreed that there is merit in what Applbaum (1993: 555) says, that “the legitimacy of a rule does not, by itself, create a moral obligation to comply with it;” agreed also that the public servant need not sacrifice the totality of his or her freedom to the organization, the fact still remains that there are procedural ways to approach issues of conflict in any organization. Peter Stockmann makes this point when he insists that as the Chairman of the governing body of the Baths he should have been duly informed on issues concerning the state of the Baths. At the beginning of the altercation he had with his brother, he demurs in the following way: “I am entitled to request most emphatically that all arrangements shall be made in businesslike manner, through the proper channels, and shall be dealt with by the legally constituted authorities. I can allow no going behind by any roundabout means.” What the Mayor is saying in effect here is that it was procedurally wrong for the medical officer to have carried out his investigation behind his (the Mayor’s) back and without official authorization. The following conversation between the two brothers will help clarify the issue a little more clearly:
Dr. Stockmann. Have I ever at any time tried to go behind your backs?
Peter Stockmann. You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and, that is almost equally inadmissible in a well ordered community. The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community—or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.
The argument in the quotation above is very important: it emphasizes the crucial issue of loyalty of public servants to their superior officers and to legally constituted authority. Obedience to the legally constituted authority is a highly cherished value not only in the civil service but in any organization that it based on a hierarchical structural order of ranking- what V. A. Thompson calls “status rank.” This refers to organizations where highly positioned individuals are not only respected but “acquire personal power… that arise from status rank” (Thompson, 1975: 12). Notwithstanding what the truth of his findings is, by not recognizing the role of authority, Dr. Stockmann broke a fundamental civil service ethic. If I were in his position as a civil servant, I would elect to act within the framework of the law. In our thinking, to act within the bounds of the law, is to act ethically.
ii. Individualism versus conformity
Another issue which is important to the present discussion is that of the role of the individual in an organization, a bureaucracy, or even a community. To what extent can a civil servant maintain individual autonomy or shed the toga of subservience that is characteristic of civil service work? In the opinion of Miles (1970: 620), the era when the civil servant “meekly” submitted to the will of his superior is gone. According to this argument, a career civil servant who finds himself in a conflict situation with his superiors does not meekly submit, but “argues as effectively as he knows for his conviction.” Though the civil servant may lose out in the argument, it is however, in Miles’ words, “an absolute obligation on his part to present his point of view with clarity and vigor” (Miles, 1970). Dobel (1999) also makes the same point when he argues that administrators may “defer to, but not surrender to, authority.” What the foregoing arguments imply is need for administrators to be morally responsible for their actions. However, a mere cursory reading of these arguments may tempt us to want to justify acts of non-conformity to constituted authority by public officials or civil servants. Without doubt, conditions may arise that may make it ineluctable for a civil servant to refuse to acquiesce or conform to institutional order or authority. A civil servant may refuse to submit to the demands of authority on the ground of conscience if told to lie or to cover up a wrong doing in the organization. The administrator may also be tempted to act independently of authority by seeking to promote the “public interest.” Dr. Stockmann believed he was acting for “the good of the community” in revealing the report about the state of the Baths to the public. In his remark to Hovstad, the editor of the People’s Messenger and some other fellows, he enthused, saying: “it is a splendid thing for a man to be able to feel that he has done a service to his native town and to his fellow-citizens” (see Ibsen, 2000). But to the Mayor, the doctor was only being rash and impetuous. The Mayor interpreted his brother’s refusal to submit to constituted authority as an action motivated by restlessness, pugnacity and a “rebellious disposition.” While it is true that the civil servant does not in the name of duty lose all his freedom and moral autonomy, Miles, however, adds an important caveat to the idea of the public servants freedom that complicates the whole matter. He tells us that the civil servant can argue out his case with his superiors in some situations, but if, and when he is overruled, he must of necessity carry out “his superior’s instructions to the full extent of his ability” (Miles, 1970)! In other words, the idea of a non-subservient civil servant, while a lofty ideal, is in practice, very difficult to realize.
Michael Quinlan makes the same argument as the above when he says that the civil servant may have various types of duties in his or her capacity as a professional, such as “duties of care about facts and proper process, duties of balance in argument, duties of frankness in advice… and warning” etc. However, if on a particular issue of policy the government (or, organization, as the case may be) has “a settled view,” the civil servant, Quinlan (1993: 541-542) avers, has no choice but to acquiesce. He also argues further that:
It would be theoretically unsound and practically dangerous… for civil servants to suppose, or for critics or commentators to encourage them to suppose, that they had some duty or entitlement of private unelected judgment of the public’s desires or interests over or around the views of the government’s duly elected leaders (Quinlan, 1993:542).
There are those will regard the fore going opinion as too restrictive or even too constrictive of personal freedom. Others will argue that an ideal of service that denies the idea of human volition is dictatorial and undemocratic in nature, and therefore, ought to be rejected. For example, in his response to Quinlan’s idea here, Applbaum argues that some form of “civil disobedience” is sometimes necessary as a way of protesting some clear case of an “unjust role requirement” from superior officers in the organization. According to this opinion, if “the authority of an elected official carries moral weight, no matter how badly the will or interests of the electorate is served, then the formal authority of the senior civil servant has moral weight, no matter how badly the will or interests of the elected official is served” (Applbaum, 1993). The idea here is that the civil servant cannot be expected to conform or submit to the demands of authority in the face of injustice and unjust demands from political superiors. The only problem with this type of opinion is how to determine what an unjust demand is; the other is to ask who determines this. With regards to the matter at hand, Dr. Stockmann believed that as a “man of science,” he was at liberty to choose how to act with regards to his professional calling. But his brother was of the view that in matters of policy, officialdom rather than personal opinion should always prevail. The Mayor tells his brother that as an officer under the Baths Committee, “you have no right to any individual opinion.” Dr. Stockmann counters, asserting his right and freedom to “express my opinion on any subject under the sun.” Here then lies the crux of the matter: a conflict between individual autonomy and conformity with bureaucratic expectation. In a situation of conflict such as the one we have described in the foregoing, what is the appropriate way to resolve the conflict? We have suggested some answers above. But there some other way that some people think is ethically sound in dealing with disagreement in the organization: whistle blowing. This is what we shall be concerned with in the next section that follows below. But before we get into that discussion, it should be remarked that much as we are ready to acknowledge the fact of the public servant’s the right of “dissent” (in some situations), it would however, amount to an exaggeration of his or her role, to suppose that the civil servant possesses an unlimited liberty to engage in acts of “civil disobedience” in the face of what may be perceived as “unjust” demands from superior officers (Applbaum, 1993: 556). It is sufficient to counsel that while in the path of duty, the civil servant should always be guided by adherence to the law in whatever he or she days. This admonition becomes all the more necessary, for as the old age tells us: “The spirit of the law lies in its procedure”!
iii. On the morality of whistle blowing
Blowing the whistle because of a perceived wrongdoing in the organization, is one of the most difficult, controversial and risky actions a career officer or civil servant can ever undertake. Whistle-blowing, as we have mentioned already, has to do with the idea of alerting someone outside the organization of a problem or perceived wrongdoing within the organization. We have already noted the distinction between internal mechanism of resolving organizational conflicts, and the much more complex issue of transferring, as it were, organizational problems the public domain for resolution. In ordinary parlance, whistle-blowing could be explained with metaphor of washing the dirty linens of the organization in the public! Svara (2007) argues that while in some situations, the action of whistle blowing could be regarded as a “heroic” or “noble gesture,” taken in the public interest, and at great personal risk to the whistle-blower; it is, however, not always the ethically appropriate action to take. The reason for this conclusion is according to Svara, that the practice of externalizing organizational problems has the potential to hurt not only the whistle-blower, but also the very people the organization is supposed to serve. In alerting the press and the public about the supposed pollution of the Baths, Dr. Stockmann’s action was a clear case of whistle-blowing. Whatever may be the merit of his “discovery,” in our thinking, Dr. Stockmann erred in not first discussing the problem with his employer- the authorities of the Baths committee- before making the matter public. It may be objected to, that we are not sure if the authorities would have acted appropriately to remedy the bad situation! But this is mere speculation as they were not given the opportunity to act one way or the other, good or bad. It is true that the Mayor and Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, who was big share holders in the Baths, tried talking him into tinkering or altering the result of his findings, but the fact remains these pressures were exerted after the matter had already been made public. One way to interpret the action of the Mayor in particular is to say that he trying to prevent the breakdown of the public order. It could as well be that he was merely trying to protect his personal interest: but we are not in a position to judge such matters after the issue was already public knowledge. If even if the Mayor were to be a self-seeking, crude and devious politician, Dr. Stockmann carelessly played into his waiting hands!
To reiterate a point made earlier in the paper, were we to be in Dr. Stockmann’s position, we would first seek to exhaust the internal mechanism of dealing with the problem at hand before thinking of venturing to the public with an official problem. The public option, if we ever think it necessary at all, will be a last resort. The reason in this particular matter is that since one is merely working with others to achieve institutional goals, problems that arise in our process of working together should also be treated as a corporate problem. One other reason would be, as Svara points, and as Quinlan concurs, staff members who work in an organization, “owe loyalty to their organization” (Svara, 2007; Quinlan, 1993). Much as we will not totally agree with Quinlan’s characterization of whistle blowing as “a euphemism for behavior that more often deserves contempt than commendation” (Quinlan, 1993), it is, however, the truth that it is not an action to be undertaken rashly or on the spur of the moment. As a matter of fact, a civil servant who is inclined to blowing the whistle, for whatever reason, must first count the cost before embarking on this type of action. James Svara outlines for us, some conditions that a person should think of meeting before thinking of blowing the whistle on his or her organization. First is that the whistle blower must be certain that there is a serious problem warranting the action he or wants to take. Second is to ensure that the facts are solid and not merely based on rumours. Third is that the whistle blower should focus on the issue at stake and not on personalities. The fourth condition is something we have emphasized already in the paper already; which is that before thinking of the public option, the potential whistle blower should first exhaust the internal mechanism of resolving organizational problems (Svara, 2007). In failing to meet the conditions listed above, Dr. Stockmann could be made to face disciplinary measures for acting the way he did. And perhaps because the Mayor was his brother, he didn’t know where to draw the line between official and filial ties! Or could it be a case of familiarity breeding contempt?
Concerning the conditions suggested by James Svara above, Dr. Stockmann had not even provided enough evidence or convincing evidence for people to believe that the Baths was indeed contaminated or infested with germs and bacteria. As Aslaksen, the Chairman of the Householders’ Association was to allege later, the doctor’s allegations could well be an “imaginary grievance” that lacked any proof! A point the Mayor quickly concurred to. True enough, the Mayor had earlier made the ominous remark to Dr. Stockmann that the matter of the Baths welfare was not simply a scientific one, but also a “complicated” matter; having as well, “its economic as well as its technical side.” Here, the man of science faced a dilemma that is often very difficult to resolve- which is how to manage the facts of science with practical life situations! Dr. Stockmann’s discovery was made at period in history when most people lacked real knowledge about the existence of microscopic bacteria. In the matter of the infection of the Baths, the burden of proof was Dr. Stockmann to convince the people that the Baths was indeed a “pest-house,” and that the whole thing was not merely a product of his “imagination.” Another problem he had to contend with was the general perception that his findings going to have a negative impact on economy of the town and the welfare of the common people in particular. Dr. Stockmann should have been cautious or more politically circumspect in his approach to handling a matter of a general interest such as the Baths. In spite of his good intentions and apparent love for his community, he became branded an “enemy of the people,” and that by the same people whose interests he laboured so much to protect! The lesson for us from what happened to the man is that “truth,” if not properly handled, can assume the appearance of falsehood! Indeed, Truth is a strong weapon against error or falsehood. But all through human history, many people have had to die in the pursuit or defense of truth. There are those who will commend Dr. Stockmann for choosing to suffer for the truth even at the risk of personal and family loss! In the end, the man did really suffer by daring to stand for what he was convinced was a truth worth dying for.
The issue of whistle blowing is a very serious social and ethical issue. The reason is that not minding the good intentions that may motivate it, the whistle blower is prone to suffering negative or grave consequences in the hands of his colleagues, superior officers or his or organization as well. Again, officers who engage in this type of action may even face retaliatory measures from his organization. The whistle blower may be seen as a rebel or a turn coat; he or she may be blackmailed or ostracized by fellow workers, or may even face outright dismissal from work. Hence, it is important for one contemplating the action of whistle blowing to count the costs and to put in place, coping strategies for self and family in the event of job termination by aggrieved colleagues or superior officers in the organization. Realizing the grave risk involved in the matter of whistle blowing, “The Art of Anonymous Activism” offers a set of recommendations for anybody considering the whistle blowing option. There are ten such recommendations listed; but for the sake of brevity, we shall mention only a few of them. The crucial ones, in our thinking, are the ones that admonish one to consult his or her loved ones before blowing the whistle; to choose one’s battles; to consult an attorney early; to identify possible allies in the organization. Others are to have a well thought-out plan; to get oneself career counseling, etc. (see POGO/GAP/PEER, 2002; Svara; 2007). In the case of Dr. Stockmann, none of these precautionary measures was put in place before he went ahead to blow the lead on the contamination of the Baths! In particular, he neither carried his wife nor children along in the he was about to get into. Even when the matter became public knowledge, and his wife remonstrated with him on the possible backlash effects his actions could have on the welfare of the family, he remained fixed to his convictions. His reply was that “even if the whole world goes to pieces,” he was not going to retrace his steps or go back on his set action! Perhaps this explains why Peter Stockmann remarked that his brother had always been “a headstrong man.” But as it turns out, the attitude of rigidity is not always the best way to handle some situations. Perhaps, as Aristotle says, virtue lies in the mean between two extremes—in this case, rigidity and flexibility. Dr. Stockmann chose the former and paid dearly for it.
iv. In pursuance of the “public interest”
The last but crucial issue we want to consider in the paper revolves around the idea of “public interest.” Dr. Stockmann believed in all sincerity that he was acting for the public interest in his battles with the town or municipal authorities. Severally, he harped on this idea of duty towards the public to defend his actions. Even when his wife demurred that he could get a dismissal from work if he persisted in his fight, his response was that he would then have been satisfied, having done his duty “towards the public,” that is, the community. And even after the great betrayal by the editors of the “People’s Messenger,” who suddenly aligned with the Mayor to discredit Dr. Stockmann’s findings, the man still will not relent in his battle with the town authorities. When the editors of the local newspaper declined publishing his article, he sought a public forum to passage his message across to the town’s people. This type of concern for the public interest is quite challenging. Indeed, all the authors whose views we have discussed in the paper have all dwelt on the duty of pubic officers to the public over and above their own personal goals For as Svara (2007) notes, in serving, the civil servant need to realize that “duty is the core and the ideal that is pursued is the public interest.”
There is so much to be said on the issue of public interest; but we will not go into all the details here. However, one crucial point that needs to be mentioned is that serving the “public interest” is not to be understood as being limited to duty or service to the public alone. On the contrary, it also includes duty or responsibility to administrative or political superiors as well as the organization that one serves. True, in a democracy, civil servants should be committed to serving the public (that is, the citizens); they are also expected to achieve the highest possible level of ethical attainment through “balancing virtue, principle, and beneficial consequences.” But in doing this, they are not to supplant political or organizational leaders “but to challenge them to govern wisely and to do their best to accomplish the goals that political leaders have set” (Svara, 2007: 159). From the foregoing analysis, we see that Dr. Stockmann erred greatly in having a partial understanding of the idea of “public interest.” He was committed to “duty” towards the so-called “public” or “community,” while failing in his duty to his superior officers or the legally constituted authorities in the Baths committee. No doubt, the Mayor and some other members of the Baths committee, like most politicians, were shrewd and foxy in their official dealings. Generally, political demagogues have a low opinion of the common people, regarding as tools to be used and dumped when the need arises. This attitude is despicable; but many politicians seem to speak from both sides of the mouth on very many occasion. When Dr. Stockmann spoke on the public officer’s duty to let the public “share in any new ideas” that may be essential to their living, the Mayor’s response was that the public doesn’t need new ideas but is “best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.”
There is no doubt that Peter Stockmann was a shrewd and crafty politician. To engage such a fellow in a battle, one needs to be well prepared and armed with facts that are incontrovertible and self-evident. But perhaps also, any other person in the Mayor’s position would have acted the way he did. In mobilizing the press and the people against his brother, the Mayor, like his brother, also said he was fighting to protect the public interest! However, it is clear that Dr. Stockmann played into his brother’s hands in not following the official channel for conflict resolution in the organization. As Mrs. Stockmann would remind her husband, the Mayor had “power,” that is, legal authority, on his side. Dr. Stockmann’s insistence that he had “right” on his own side did not avail much in the end. Mrs. Stockmann made a remark that has proved to be true and has stood the test of time. In a rhetorical manner she her husband the following question: “What is the use of having right on your side if you have not got might?” This question has proven to be a key factor in relationships between nations in the international arena. It is the case that powerful nations have always imposed their will over less powerful ones. Even in the United Nations, which is supposed to be a comity of nations of equal status and legal weight, the will of the more powerful nations is often the dominant will- even when those are wrong! This is perhaps, what Thomas Nagel describes as an example of “the cunning of history” (Nagel, 2005: 147). In the case of Dr. Stockmann, in the end, right did not prevail over might. The same “compact majority” he sought to defend were quick to label him “an enemy of the people.” His family also suffers along with him in the end.
Our focus in the paper has been on how to deal with organizational problem or difficulty and with the type of approach that is appropriate in resolving such problems. In the particular case of Dr. Stockmann, we have seen how he tried to deal with the issue of the contamination of the Baths. In the paper, we argued that as a civil and medical officer of the Baths, Dr. Stockmann should have first exhausted the internal mechanism of dealing with organizational problems before thinking of externalizing the matter. We also argued that if we had been in his position as the town’s medical officer, we would have acted differently than he did. We offered a number of justifications for the position took. As we said in the paper, a civil servant should be guided by reason and by adherence to rules in dealing with organizational problems or disputes. Without doubt, situations may arise in which whistle blowing may be heroic, or the “noble” thing to do. Such may be situations of abuse of public trust on the part of officers who have the legal authority to serve the public interest. Similarly, in situations of gross wrong doings on the part public servants, the need become necessary to blow the lead on such wrong doing. To repeat a point we have made severally in the paper, it is always better to first count the cost, critically weigh the facts, before ever thinking of blowing the whistle. It is always better to err on the side of the law than against it.
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