To Tell or Not To Tell: Exploring the Ethical Question in The Insider Essay

Executive Summary

            Ethics as gleaned in the movie The Insider was demonstrated in the difficult choice of whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a former top executive for tobacco company Brown and Williamson to expose perjury and the tobacco company’s malpractices by denying under oath and purposefully selling cigarettes that contain addictive nicotine and cancer-causing substance Coumadin.

            This choice became a difficult struggle for Wigand who lacked the emotional preparedness to make an immediate definitive stand on whether or not to go public with his testimony on the CBS News show 60 Minutes. Faced with an ethical dilemma, Wigand was forced to weigh his choice rationally and under extreme threat to his life and limb and eventually decided to testify against Brown and Williamson and do the CBS interview.

            A close review of conceptual literature analyzes the main character using Aristotelian phronesis as applied in resolving his ethical dilemma. Aristotle’s definition of virtues profiles Wigand as an ‘incontinent’ – committed to the virtuous end but ending up in a moral dilemma because of a defect in character specifically a lack of courage and temperance. However, he also integrated intelligence with practical experience effectively, which led him to make the costly decision that highlighted one of the most damning exposés directed at the tobacco industry.

Judging from the perspective of the common good, Wigand’s choice could be said as a virtuous choice helped by theoretical reasoning (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). His ethical decision eventually led to a billion-dollar settlement and increased regulation of the tobacco industry.

I.  The Problem

The Insider involved an explosive exposé  made by Dr. Jeffrey Wigand in an interview for CBS News show 60 Minutes indicting United States’ number three tobacco company Brown and Williamson of corporate malpractice for knowingly and intentionally selling tobacco despite in-house empirical research proving nicotine’s addictive properties and serious risks to health. The film highlights the struggle of one man to settle conflicts in judgment pertaining the necessity and soundness of bringing the issue public at the risk of his life and profession.

Wigand was an ex-corporate vice president for Brown and Williamson before he got fired over his refusal to recommend the continued sale of cigarettes that contain a cancer-causing substance known as coumadin. His protest led to an eventual termination by the company with a severance package governed by a confidentiality agreement prohibiting the former to divulge any information relating to his work. He eventually finds himself battling with his conscience after Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show 60 Minutes, prods him to reveal what he knows in relation to confidential scientific documents appearing to be from Philip Morris. Threatened by the possibility of a termination of severance benefits and a renewed agreement being forced out of him by Brown and Williamson, Wigand finds himself in an ethical dilemma, of what to do with the truth he feels compelled to tell the public.

II. Context and Circumstance

Wigand’s whistleblowing (event) comes at a time when the U.S. government was aiming at efforts to regulate the tobacco industry and its harmful effects to health.  During this time, Big Tobacco was battling with public opinion and under intensive scrutiny of the media and Congress for the alleged detrimental effects of tobacco on the American population. Congress conducted a closely watched inquiry and heard chief executive officers of America’s largest tobacco companies swore under oath that nicotine is not addictive. Elsewhere, the state of Mississippi was involved in a high-profile lawsuit against Big Tobacco for alleged smoking-related health problems on its local populace. Against this political and economic context, Wigand’s ethical dilemma is aggravated: his story is one of the most damning piece of evidence against Big Tobacco as well as a threat to a powerful industry more than prepared to destroy him.

The situation then became a choice over which interest Wigand should help prevail at the cost of his personal happiness. Should he choose the public interest which calls for his testimony but undermines his economic support and family, or the private interest of a tobacco company that has been allowed under free market globalization to sell its product to the public?

Initially, Wigand demonstrated a rational fear of testifying against his former employer, knowing full well its consequences. As an executive, he is bound by business ethics to remain true to the confidentiality agreement, but as a scientist and a citizen, he also feels his moral responsibility to promote the public interest. He initially refused to even hint at what he knows to Bergman who was set on convincing him to reveal what he knows in public.

To a realistic extent, Wigand’s fear was well-founded. At stake was his economic survival, credibility, and conscience. If he chooses to become a whistleblower, his family would lose the severance package needed to get through, including health care needed by his asthmatic daughter. If he remains silent, he saves his family but betrays his conscience and principles. His silence will at least let him move on, find a new job and not be target to a smear campaign by his former employer but at the price of betraying everything he has believed in. If he tells all, he stands to lose everything but his conscience and morality.

Wigand was faced with a complex problem that only had two choices available: to keep his mouth shut or reveal everything he knows about Brown and Williamson. The challenge for Wigand was to handle the ensuing circumstances that followed any of those choices.

After much prodding from Bergman and incessant bouts of guilt and conscience, he agreed to do the interview with CBS News. He also agreed, under threat of contempt, to testify for the state of Mississipi’s case against Big Tobacco as a witness where he revealed that cigarettes have carcinogenic substances present including the presence of addictive nicotine. In his CBS interview, he accused Brown and Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur of perjury for swearing under oath that nicotine is not addictive when in fact, speaking as a Big Tobacco insider, they were according to him “in the nicotine delivery business”. This decision ended up in a divorce and a smear campaign launched by Big Tobacco that intended to discredit him. Wigand did the interview with the hope that this was to be aired for public consumption, but the story was nearly killed by CBS Corporate in order to secure its smooth acquisition by Westinghouse, of which Brown and Williamson had shares. Corporate interest came into play at the expense of the truth. Moreover, Wigand fell victim to a smear campaign before the episode finally after The Wall Street Journal published a story on CBS’s refusal to air it.

III. Related Literature

There is a preponderance of literature applicable to Wigand’s ethical dilemma. Aristotelian ethics would suggest that Wigand had no choice but to face the complex decision because ethics is central to being human. And the end of ethics is what Aristotle refers as the end of human existence itself: eudaimon or happiness. Ethics requires the use of reason, emotion and social skills (Rowe 1971). Reason should be used well because it is the one function that sets humanity apart from the rest of the species; if we allow ourselves to be guided by reason, we can attain a better life, and achieve happiness for ourselves.

But what is happiness and how is it achieved? The nature or definition of happiness from the Aristotelian perspective is ambiguous, but writers construe his definition of happiness as one tied with virtue. Happiness is not a virtue itself, but a “virtuous activity”. Having a good life is characterized by virtuous actions, not just a particular situation or condition.  Essentially, living well is doing what the rational soul considers virtuous or excellent, and such activities are key to achieving happiness.

In order to achieve the highest end, the rational human being must possess ethical virtue, which is a condition lying in the middle of an excess or deficiency. When confronted with a choice, the virtuous man would choose a decision that avoids both the excess and the deficiency. This is the doctrine of the mean, which makes it natural and proper for human beings to show strong feeling or emotion when the situation calls for it. In effect, sometimes anger is proper, sometimes it is not. Anger displayed by the virtuous man depends on the “degree proportionate to the situation” (Cooper 1988, p. 61-64).

For Aristotle, there are four types of individuals based on how they use their rational soul to make ethical choices: the virtuous (one who truly enjoys doing what is right and do so without moral dilemma); the continent (one who does the virtuous thing most of the time, but must overcome conflict); the incontinent (one who faces a moral conflict, but chooses the vicious thing) and the vicious (one who sees little in virtue and does not attempt it) (Roche 1998, p. 49).

Aristotle also says that possessing virtue alone is not enough. While “virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it” (Reeve 1992, p. 46). Practical reasoning proceeds from an end that an individual is attempting to achieve. Practical wisdom or phronesis answers how that goal is accomplished. When humans face extremely complex situations, they are apt to apply phronesis, the “science of what is just, fine and good for a human being.” This process is a disposition possessed by individuals who refuse to be passive or allow themselves to be dictated by emotion in their actions, a process made “to deliberate well… so as to attain the best, ultimate and most comprehensive ends to man” (Reeve 1992, p. 83).

Humans inevitably face complex situations in their lives and phronesis is applied in order to deliberate wisely in order to arrive at a decision that pursues the highest end. Essentially, Aristotelian ethics suggests that human beings determine different goals to be achieved, confront ethical situations based on their rational, emotional and social capacities and end up with different outcomes.

IV. Aristotelian Theories Applied in The Insider

In analyzing Wigand’s problem, it is clear that he faced a clearly complex ethical problem that would require the judicious application of intelligence and practical wisdom. He is faced with a choice between two decisions with corresponding repercussions: to stay silent or to speak up, whose interest to protect, public or private. The complexity of his problem is aggravated by the enormity of the stakes, and therefore, he is required by the very complex nature of his problem itself to practice utmost prudence and intelligence in order to arrive at a solution that will give him happiness, the end of all ethical questions.

            Aristotelian ethics and phronesis helped me reveal the underpinnings of ethical decisions such as the problem in The Insider. In studying Wigand’s dilemma, I am able to understand the difficult interplay between reason and emotion in the man who faced probably the most difficult decision in his life. There are many political actors in this movie that slowed down, expedited or stagnated Wigand’s path of action, and in the course of resolving his ethical dilemma, he demonstrated both skill and deficiency in handling the complex situations he faced. As problems unraveled before his very eyes, he was forced not only to rely on theoretical judgments but on practical and experience-based decisions in order to resolve his situation.

In analyzing the movie’s problem through the Aristotelian perspective, there are several practical implications. It is clear that going against a powerful industry is an action Aristotle would say ordinary men would find difficulty in facing. Aristotelian phronesis would suggest that it would require skill and experience in making sound judgments toward its ultimate resolution. Above all, it would require prudence and intellectual preparedness in a man to calibrate judgments according to context and circumstance. It would require that the man facing the problem apply the doctrine of the mean effectively. In the face of danger, the prudent person would take all relevant factors into account and conduct himself in a manner that would protect himself and others from danger. Depending on the gravity of the circumstance faced, it may require boldness out of him, or extreme caution.


            Applying this framework to assess Wigand’s handling of the problem, there are several instances when he should have exercised greater daring than weakness and practiced calm rather than anger. In arriving at his decision to be interviewed, he relied not on the strength of his intellect, but allowed his emotions to clinch that decision for him without taking into account several factors that would be affected by it. This is something that a prudent man would not do. First of all, his failure to prepare his wife and family for dangers that they may face created schism and ultimately ended in divorce. Looking back, had he been truthful and transparent to his wife about the circumstances he faced despite her anticipated objections would have given him an additional support system. Had he also been transparent in dealing with Bergman about his past would have mitigated the damage caused by the smear campaign against him initiated by Big Tobacco. There were also salient features in Wigand’s handling of the problem that showed him as demonstrably prudent. Clearly a man of conviction, his decision in going against Brown and Williamson displayed bravery and intelligence. By the nature of his choice alone, he chose that which promoted the greater good. He knew, by practical experience, that the company was too powerful for him to take on alone. Stopping them from producing harmful cigarette products that have disastrous effects on public health is not the job for one man, and he was able to see this noble goal to fruition by going public on CBS. Although there were many instances Wigand faltered in managing the effects of his decision, Aristotelian phronesis would qualify him for a prudent man for having prevented a life about to be ruined by cowardice and vanity. Wigand realized that the goal he set out to do did not give him happiness at all. Being a biologist, he wanted to help make the lives of people better. But because he was presented with an opportunity for wealth, he decided to pursue what Aristotle calls a “vicious” goal, one that does not consist in virtuous activity. He realized that he instead became a part of a company that has destroyed lives.

The ethical choice, in the worst cases, as in this movie, could destroy you. Whether or not the choice is prudent depends on one’s rational skills and emotional preparedness. There were many instances when Wigand made careless choices such as concealing pertinent facts about his past which Bergman considered important, catching him unprepared and weak against a grand smear campaign. At any rate, Wigand’s rational thinking led him to push through with the exposé. From the perspective of the common good, he can be regarded a modern-day hero but whether or not this was the best choice to pursue the highest end of personal happiness is entirely Wigand’s conclusion.


Cooper, John M. (1986) Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Reeve, C.D.C. (1992) Practices of Reason, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roche, T. (1988) “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Spindel Conference, 27, p. 32-50.

Rowe, C.J. (1971) “The Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics—a Study in the Development of Aristotle’s Thought.” Cambridge: Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, p. 65-109.