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‘Take it Personally’

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Three women took serious professional and personal risks when exposing corrupt organizations in 2002. The giant organizations Enron, WorldCom and FBI had exploited public trust, and the women, employed by these organizations, all decided to blow the whistle on their employers, even though they were well aware of the harmful consequences for their leaders, their colleagues, and themselves. In spite of expected personal costs, they ‘did the unthinkable’ in the service of the common good.

Since whistleblowing behavior is generally known as supererogatory behavior, it is associated with saints. However, these women did not look upon themselves as saints. Afterwards, they stated they only did what they had to do. The kind of burden the women took upon themselves is termed deep personal responsibility. This term emphasizes that character – and consequently attitudes, feelings, thoughts and actions – is decisively important.

Personal responsibility might be seen as the opposite of collective responsibility, in which the subjects involved prefer to look upon themselves as small replaceable cogs in a big machine-like system. As a cog, it is opportunistic to blame the system for its own unethical behavior. To blame their own organization, their leaders, or the system for own wrongdoing, is responsibility-taking in a shallow sense. In this essay, Adolf Eichmann is presented as the paradigmatic example of a person who tried to avoid personal responsibility by referring to obedience to German law during the Nazi era. Once upon a time obedience was seen as a moral virtue, and obedience may still have relvance for small children and closed-minded fanatics. However, in the modern world obedience should be replaced by responsibility. As Hannah Arendt put it: It is quite different to ask why someone supports than why someone obeys (2003 p.47). To support an activity under the name of obedience is merely buck passing.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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