5 min read

Whistleblowing: what if your CEO is a Caesar?

What are the boundaries of legitimate protest?

Professor Charles Foster is a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and a member of the Oxford Law Faculty.

On a conference stage, a seated speaker leans back and opines
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.
TechCrunch, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons .

If you discovered that the company you worked for was doing work that posed an existential risk to humanity, would you consider yourself entitled – or perhaps morally obliged – to blow the whistle? 

This issue provoked a recent open letter from current and former employees at AI companies including Sam Altman’s OpenAI, asserting that the laws protecting whistleblowers are inadequate because they typically focus on illegal activity – and the AI companies concerned are doing nothing which is (yet) illegal. It called for companies to take a number of steps (including not entering into or enforcing agreements prohibiting the raising of risk-related concerns). 

Some might say that if an employee takes the company’s money, that money should buy loyal silence, and that if the public interest demands a different approach, the remedy is the extension to risk-related concerns of existing whistleblower legislation. But unless and until that legislation is extended, should we applaud conscience-driven breaches of contract?  

What about breaches of the criminal law for morally justifiable reasons – for instance to draw attention to the risks that the protestors say are associated with climate change?  

The reality of modern corporate governance means that the CEO may be more practically Caesarean than a country’s government. 

Christian debate about these issues has traditionally turned on two Bible texts. Paul, in writing to those in a Roman church, declares: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed….the authority… is the agent of God.’ And Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, advises us to ‘render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.’ 

Who are the ‘authorities’ spoken of by Paul? Who is the modern Caesar spoken of by Jesus? Presumably in each case – in a parliamentary democracy – it is the combined legislature and executive of the day. Perhaps, these days, we should translate ‘Caesar’ as ‘the social contract’. But does this mean that (if we take these injunctions seriously) we should regard ourselves as bound not to commit criminal offences (which are offences against the state), but should feel no corresponding inhibition about breaching private law obligations, such as those owed under contracts of employment? My instinct is to say that this is indeed what it means, but that is not self-evident. After all, much employment law is statutory – an emanation of Parliament, and the reality of modern corporate governance means that the CEO may be more practically Caesarean than a country’s government. 

Rendering the right thing to Caesar in a theocracy such as Byzantium might mean something very different in a modern tyranny or a democracy.

Should Christians, though, feel constrained by these scriptural passages? Both Paul and Jesus seemed to think that there was little point in establishing lasting social, legal or governmental structures because the end times were just around the corner. Jesus thought that some of his audience would still be alive when the Son of Man returned to complete the messianic project without any help from any secular governor. Paul’s belief that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand was behind his advice that the unmarried (unless they really couldn’t stay celibate) should remain unmarried and get on with the urgent business of preparing for the imminent in-rush of the true Kingdom. Both Jesus and Paul were dramatically wrong about the chronology. Why, then, should we take seriously advice about the regulation of society that was based on their mistake? Should Paul’s advice to those Romans be read as pragmatism – intended by him to convince rulers that Christians wouldn’t make trouble, and that therefore the Christians should be left alone? He may have thought that a shabby compromise with secular powers didn’t matter much because it wouldn’t last long.  

Even if these texts are in some meaningful sense authoritative, what do they mean for modern life? As ever, the devil (and potentially the angel) is in the detail, and Paul and Jesus left the church to work out the relevant details. There is no consensus. Rendering the right thing to Caesar in a theocracy such as Byzantium might mean something very different in a modern tyranny or a democracy. Only in a few situations is the correct answer obvious: no one would doubt that those martyred for refusing to worship the Caesar of the day had made the (or at least a) right choice. But as soon as we move away from such cases the waters get muddy. Would Paul have denounced Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the plot to kill Hitler? If so, would he have been right? It cannot be seriously argued that it is illegitimate to protest against the policies of the day, any more than it could be suggested that Paul requires us to cast our vote in favour of the currently ruling party. 

What, then, are the boundaries of legitimate protest?  

Suppose that AI really does pose a threat to the whole of humanity. Does ‘rendering to God’ not then demand, in a private law context, that the whistle be blown, even if it involves a breach of a contractual obligation? It seems at least arguable.  

Is a breach of the criminal law – for instance in the case of climate change protestors – different? It may well be.  

In England the law has evolved a nuanced approach to ethically motivated criminality. That approach was recently displayed in the sentencing of five Extinction Rebellion activists for criminal damage to the premises of a bank. The judge accepted that each defendant believed that the bank was culpably involved in funding fossil fuel extraction projects, and that such projects endangered the planet. He noted that Lord Hoffman had said: ‘People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history [for instance the suffragettes]. It is the mark of a civilized community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protestors behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law.’ In return, he went on, the state behaves with restraint, and the judiciary imposes sentences which take the conscientious motives into account. 

This approach, said the sentencing judge, amounts to a ‘social compact between the courts and protestors.’  

Perhaps, in the realm of the criminal law, that sort of social compact encodes the relevant moral and theological principles as well as anything can.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)