Enemy of the People: A perspective on a classic

Hello Ethic Nutters,

I’m posting a paper of mine written during my Masters while in Linkoping, Sweden. The course was Social and Political Ethics and I was assigned the task to review the play by Henrik Ibsen “An Enemy of the People” which I didn’t know at the time held immense importance in Political Ethics.

You can read the play here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2446/2446-h/2446-h.htm

Below is the paper. I will try and provide new writings in the new year on the Virtue of Quality Improvement although with just starting a new position and soon moving it will have to wait a little.




The play An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen written in 1882 is about a small town’s doctor, the protagonist Dr. Stockmann, who discovers that the baths, with which the town generates a substantial amount of income through tourists, is in fact polluted. The story is essentially about a civil servant who struggles to do what he deems right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The purpose of this paper is to examine what it is I would have done personally had I been in Dr. Stockmann’s position and more importantly why I would have chosen such a path. In this paper, I shall begin by summarizing what Dr. Stockmann chose to do after which I shall make clear what I would have done differently. It is important for my discussion that I initially lay out Dr. Stockmann’s position so that I can clearly contrast it with that of my own. This contrasting will be followed by an explanation for my decision which will be the focus of this paper. In so doing, I shall refer to some of the course literature in providing my rationale.

Dr. Stockmann’s decision about the proper course of action regarding the potentially polluted bath system covers the course of the play and begins at the dinner table. After receiving a letter which he was anxiously waiting for, he mentions for the first time that the baths are polluted at the dinner table. This I take to be Dr. Stockmann’s first faulty decision. I will state right now that I do not mean to take all of Dr. Stockmann’s decisions regarding the proper course of action when addressing the polluted baths problem as faulty. There are several instances in which I agree with his decisions either in entirety or in part.

An additional decision made by Dr. Stockmann which I shall introduce as a decision worthy of scrutiny is his response to Hovstad. When proposed with the idea that they could launch a full-scale attack on conservatism, Dr. Stockmann does not initially support this idea and is in fact hesitant. This reluctance is important for our discussion later on.

Shortly after the initial Hovstad incident where Dr. Stockmann is propositioned he gets a further proposition from Aslaksen. Aslaksen stops by to see Dr. Stockmann and tells him that he has the support of the Temperance Society and the Homeowners Association. He goes on to suggest to Dr. Stockmann that he should have a demonstration in favour of fixing the baths. Dr. Stockmann rejects this idea in favour of continuing his faith in the baths’ board of directors committee. Dr. Stockmann, however, does make arrangements in case the board of directors refuses to fix the problem initially. In that situation, he decides that he will let Hovstad go public with all of the information. Later on in the play, Dr. Stockmann is told by the Mayor and Chairman of the baths committee that the board might be willing to make some changes in a few years. Dr. Stockmann is outraged by this delay in solving the pollution problem. The Mayor makes an interesting comment here in the play and says that he (Dr. Stockmann) cannot submit to authority.

The final decision which I shall examine is Dr. Stockmann’s decision to make a speech regardless of the fact that he cannot speak about the report. As is seemingly typical and in line with what is known about the doctor’s personality, he decides to take the opportunity of a town hall meeting to go on a furious diatribe. He goes so far as to compare the masses to mongrels and the intelligent minority to purebreds. Furthermore, he states that there is colossal stupidity amongst the authorities. Aslaksen’s repeated attempts to calm and persuade the doctor to stop his speech go unheeded and Dr. Stockmann continues his speech in a fury of hate towards the town, the people, its government, and the idea that the majority should rule. His speech is completely unprofessional. His remarks can only be seen as harmful comments which erode the trust that the people have in their government and its structure.

The main decision that I shall look at for the purposes of this paper is Dr. Stockmann’s decision to go public with the information that the baths are polluted. Although not allowed to discuss the issue at the town hall meeting, by the time the meeting is held it is clear that the doctor’s discussions with several of the town’s people (such as Hovstad) have turned the report into a growing rumour. He therefore intentionally leaked the information before the committee board could either verify the information or discuss a proper way of handling the situation. It could be said that he did not intend for the information to be leaked and thus starting the “rumour mills” but if it is true did not intend for such a situation to occur, he should have at least entertained the idea that it could occur. This is especially true when speaking with employees of a newspaper.

To summarize, there are four minor (yet significant) decisions and one crucial decision which Dr. Stockmann made. Although not apparent at the moment, the four minor decisions made are clearly relevant to our discussion of the one crucial decision. First, he let his family and friends know about the polluted baths at the dinner table. Second, he hesitated and did not fully endorse the idea proposed to him by Hovstad that the circumstances surrounding the baths could be used as an all-out attack on the government. Third, Dr. Stockmann supports the baths committee board and rejects the idea of having a demonstration but plans to release the information with help from Aslaksen if the committee board does not decide with his stance. Fourth, he decides to use a town hall meeting for an uncalled for and hurtful diatribe on the people, the authorities, and on the entire notion that the majority should rule.

This section on what decision I would have made regarding the baths is divided into two parts. The first part is what I would have done from my initial suspicions regarding the baths to the end of the public demonstration at the town hall meeting. The second part is a comparison of several of the key sub decisions made, and how and why they differ from Dr. Stockmann’s.

You will find many differences between the decisions I would have taken as compared to the decisions Dr. Stockmann took. Initially, I would have first mentioned my intent to conduct tests on the water at the baths to the committee board. This would have precluded any future insinuations that I was doing the tests behind their backs and would have ensured that from the start all the relevant parties involved would be on the same page. Upon completion of the tests and discovering that the baths are indeed polluted I would have informed the committee. I would have told them that the results show that the baths are polluted and that it is my recommendation that they be closed down until the problem is resolved. At this stage, I would not have mentioned that I was testing the baths or that the results came back positive for pollution to anyone outside the baths committee. I would have deferred the duty of informing the public (if that is the course of action which is agreed upon) to my superiors. I would not have let the information leak out and start rumours nor would I make a backup plan in case the committee decided not to make the information public as Dr. Stockmann did with the newspapers. If the committee decided that we should have a town hall meeting to openly discuss the issue with the public (and determine what the people would like to have done) I would have participated in the meeting but in a drastically different fashion from Dr. Stockmann. My speech would be brief and to the point and go something like the following:

Hello fellow citizens. I am here today to raise the issue of the baths being contaminated. After several tests, we have determined that the baths appear to be polluted. We will be conducting further tests to be absolutely sure of the results but at this time I would caution all of you to refrain from drinking and swimming in the baths or keep such activities to a minimum. We have arranged this meeting today to ascertain what it is you the people would like us to do. Should we keep the baths open; close the baths and make the necessary repairs; or keep the baths open for the time being and make the repairs sometime from now? Thank you for your time.

As it was not my decision to go public with the information (rather it was the committees) I believe the proper speech would be politically neutral and stating the facts as they appear now. Notice that it is non-committal and friendly. This is important because at that moment in time it would be crucially important not to distance oneself from the public.

After conducting further tests confirming the pollution I would have written a second report stating that it was my professional opinion that the baths be closed down immediately as they present a clear and present danger to those using them. This would be my final act with regards to the baths and from then on I would defer authority to the committee to decide the right course of action.

Having just outlined the course of action I would have taken (not to go public with the information immediately) I shall now cover several of the decisions made by Dr. Stockmann and outline how I would have done things differently and why.

In the beginning, Dr. Stockmann conducts the necessary tests of water purity, in a sense, behind the backs of the baths’ committee board. Although, as I have already stated, I would not have done this, there is another thing which I would have done differently. If we assume, as is seemingly plausible, that Dr. Stockmann conducted the tests on the baths during office hours I would have acted differently. I would have spent the extra hours outside of the office to conduct such tests. Support for such a course of action can be found in “The Ethics Primer: for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations” by James Svara. He notes in the section on responsible whistleblowing a set of recommendations offered by “The Act of Anonymous Activism”. Recommendation four states that one should not use government resources while planning to whistleblow.[1] Although at such an early stage in the play, Dr. Stockmann’s decisions may legitimately not be seen as whistleblowing, I believe such recommendations can be extended in scope to include such initial actions. (Svara 2007 pg.121) Furthermore, at such an early stage I would have told the mayor that I intended to conduct the tests instead of keeping him in the dark. This would have been a seemingly routine check and nothing which the mayor would, in my view, oppose. Although Dr. Stockmann did not want to tell the mayor until he was absolutely certain, I take this to be unnecessary prudence. This is because I believe that all activities should be reported to the baths committee with regards to the baths, during or even outside office hours. As the baths are the responsibility of the baths’ committee, it is in their interest to be informed about all actions involving the baths. A check on the quality of the water would certainly be of interest to them and thus the committee members should not have been left in the dark until after the test.

Another decision made by the doctor, which I find faulty, is that he decided to tell all of his dinner guests about the data while at the dinner table surrounded by not only family but also members of the press. Although I agree that the doctor should let his family know so that he can get their input into what the best course of action should be, I find it highly dubious that he should at the same time let someone from the press be privy to the information. At this stage, what should be done with the information is still (or at least should have been still) up in the air. To let someone from the press get a hold of this information is begging for the information to be leaked and for rumours to get started. Dr. Stockmann has either wittingly or unwittingly made the information public before his superiors have had a chance to determine the proper course of action – whether that means making it known or keeping it to themselves.

Not all of Dr. Stockmann’s decisions do I find faulty and wrong. He makes a decision which I do support regarding an early interaction he has with Hovstad. Hovstad wants to use the situation with the baths to launch an all-out attack on the authorities. To this Dr. Stockmann is appropriately hesitant and does not initially support the idea. I agree with the doctor’s decision here. To use the pollution of the baths as an attack on the authorities is not appropriate. Using the baths as political fodder with an ulterior motive is uncalled for and falls outside of the situation as it stands. To bring in the faults of the government is an inappropriate use of the issue. I also find that Dr. Stockmann’s initial reaction (that a demonstration is not needed) is appropriate and in line with the proper way of handling the situation – that being, to try internal methods first.

As a side note to one of Dr. Stockmann’s minor decisions, I believe his comment that what we now offer to tourists is a “permanent supply of poison” is not appropriate in an official document. This I take to show that the doctor is not treating the matter as official let alone confidential, to begin with. This lack of treating the problem with a certain degree of professionalism is carried over to his speech made at the town hall meeting which is the final decision which I would like to discuss.

At this meeting, which is the climax of the play, the doctor decides that he would (instead of making no speech at all) make one about the pollution in the government. I would have recognized that I should make no speech at all or if I chose to make one, or was asked to, it would be brief as previously stated and illustrated. Secondly, I certainly would not have made one which goes against the government. I would have recognized that although there may be problems, the structure itself is sound and that it is of utmost importance in a democracy that the people have faith and trust in their elected officials and in the system itself. Dr. Stockmann’s true character comes out in this section of the play and we see the doctor for what he truly is – an over-zealous, irresponsible, unprofessional, and at times wholly irrational man. There is no stronger support for such a description of the man than the fact that he himself agreed to be called an enemy of the people and stated that the town should be wiped out to eliminate the vermin.

To summarize my position, I would not have made the information about the pollution in the baths public. Furthermore, two sub decisions which I would have done differently are the following: I would have initially mentioned to the baths’ committee my intention to test the water; and secondly, I would not have been so quick to divulge the findings to everyone around a dinner table. Although some of the reasons why I have made these decisions are already given, the main reasons why I decided the way I did is due to my understanding of duties and the act of whistleblowing.

My decision regarding the information about the pollution in the baths is not to go public with the information but to rather rely on and trust the decision of the baths’ committee. When answering the question why I made the decisions I made I will look mainly at the idea of duties as they pertain to civil servants and to the act of whistleblowing. I have divided the answer to the question (why I decided as I did) into two sections. The first refers to duties as they are seen for a civil servant, and the second refers to whistleblowing and how it should be done.

A lot of the reasoning behind my decision not to go public with the information and also most of the reasons behind the sub-decisions I would have made along the way are in large part about how I perceive my duty as a civil servant.

In the situation raised in the play, it is my belief that in the doctor’s position and in the one I was asked to adopt, the proper scope of one’s duty is simply to check for possible health risks and report such findings if found. My duty does not extend beyond that into some form of additional duty requiring me to demand change in the face of personal attacks. Once the issue has been raised by either the doctor or myself as a part of our duty, it is up to the committee to determine what to do. At one point during the play, Dr. Stockmann says that it is the Mayor’s duty to close down the baths and make the repairs, while at another point the Mayor mentions that the doctor acting as an employee has no individual rights. While I will not go into detail about either one’s claim as to what the duty is of the other I believe they remain interesting claims.

Although I do not believe that it is the duty of the doctor to inform the public and allow for public deliberation on the matter (since, in a sense, the play was carried out in that manner) I would like to present a case example almost identical to the polluted baths in which the people in the end sided in the same manner. This interesting case is raised by Mark H. Moore in “Public Deliberation, Social Learning, and Leadership”. In this paper which includes a section on public deliberation, there is a case example almost exactly analogous to that of the polluted baths in the Ibsen play. The people of Tacoma Washington were faced with the decision of either shutting down an Asarco smelting plant that was emitting hazardous wastes in the air or leaving it in operation to provide jobs for a large number of local citizens. In the end, they decided to leave the plant in operation.[2] In my mind what this refers to is that in the end the authority really rests with the people – i.e. a majority of them. This goes against Dr. Stockmann’s tirade that only a small elite should run things and if done so things would be better. I tend to think that we must maintain a system where the majority rules even if it appears that sometimes the majority is making a mistake.

If his duty is finished but he still has a moral claim against the government, and as such has a moral requirement more fundamental than his role, Arthur Isak Applbaum notes (referring to a piece written by Michael Quinlan) that one should quietly withdraw one’s service and not behave in the manner Dr. Stockmann did.[3] I take this note from Quinlan to be an appropriate solution to Dr. Stockmann’s position. Having done his duty of informing the committee about the problem, if there was still something which the doctor did not agree with morally, he ought to have resigned or asked for a transfer – not launch into a public tirade on the government. This is a case where the doctor does not have the moral authority to act upon his judgments.[4]

When dealing with a situation where there is a conflict between oneself and one’s superiors Rufus E. Miles, Jr. states the following in the article “Non-Subservient Civil Servants”:

Does he submit, meekly? He does not. He argues as effectively as he knows how for his conviction. He may lose the argument, but it is an absolute obligation on his part to present his point of view with clarity and vigor. If and when he is overruled, he carries out his superior’s instructions to the full extent of his ability. He knows that you win some and you lose some, and as long as your percentage of wins is a tolerable average, you hang in there and feel that the ball game is worth the playing.[5]

The idea this section supports is that once a superior has made a decision you ought to follow it to the best of your ability even if you disagree with that decision. It makes the point that politics is like a ball game and so long as you don’t lose all of your arguments it is a worth-while game and you should continue playing it even in the face of the occasional defeat. This speaks to the situation Dr. Stockmann found himself in. Having lost the argument over what to do with the baths he should have submitted to authority and followed their instructions. Because I tend to agree with Miles that you cannot expect to always win and that this does not mean that the game is not worth playing, I decided not to go public.

To summarize my reasons why I would not have gone public with the information about the baths as they pertain to notions of duty my reasons are the following. To begin with, I do not take it as my duty to inform the public but rather to merely raise the issue amongst the baths’ committee. Secondly, if they decide not to go public with the information and I feel as though they should, there is support in several articles for the idea of either submitting to authority or if you feel really strongly about it withdraw quietly from the civil service. Miles says it best when he says, “He knows that you win some and you lose some, and as long as your percentage of wins is a tolerable average, you hang in there and feel that the ball game is worth the playing.”[6] Now I shall turn to my reasons for not going public with the information as they relate to ideas regarding the act of whistleblowing.

Ibsen’s play can be seen as a case of many things, one of which is a case of whistleblowing. Should Dr. Stockmann blow the whistle on the polluted baths and more generally on the perceived corruption in the government or should he stay silent? Viewing the play as a case of whistleblowing strongly influenced my decision not to go public with the information. After a review of some literature on the subject, one interesting piece of information is a kind of checklist when determining whether one should blow the whistle or not.[7] The checklist contains ten categories which one is recommended to follow when going through the process to decide whether to blow the whistle. These are as follows: 1) Consult your loved ones 2) Check for skeletons in your closet 3) Document, Document, Document, 4) Do not use government resources 5) Check to see who, if anyone, will support your account 6) Consult an attorney early 7) Choose your battles 8) Identify allies 9) Have a well-thought-out plan 10) Get yourself a little career counselling.[8] The most important categories on this list for this discussion are 1, 2, 5, and 7. Others may also be relevant but I believe only to a lesser degree especially when deciding what I would have done (in contrast with what Dr. Stockmann decided). In addition to this list, it is stated several times in the same chapter on whistleblowing that you should exhaust internal methods of dealing with the situation before going public if at all possible. I will now discuss the relevant categories of the checklist and then the idea of exhausting internal channels in turn.

The first category which I would like to discuss is number one, consult your loved ones. Had Dr. Stockmann really consulted his family he would have decided otherwise. His wife, for example, was very much against the idea of her husband fighting the system and the only person who seemed to be in agreement with him was Petra his daughter. I believe that the wishes of the wife should take precedence over that of the daughter and thus Dr. Stockmann should have immediately listened to his wife and not gone forward with his attack on the government. For myself, deciding whether or not to go public with the information if I was in Dr. Stockmanns’ place, I would have (after consulting my loved ones and finding out that my wife is not in agreement) decided right then and there to stay silent about the baths.

The second category which I will discuss is number two on the list and tells us to check for skeletons in our closets. The doctor failed to do this. Had he done so and made the decision with his history in mind I believe he would have decided otherwise. The doctor’s personality is filled with questionable practices and behaviour. Had I made the decision in the doctor’s shoes, I would have decided again, not to go public with the information and blow the whistle. This category about looking back at one’s history is to ensure that you are not vulnerable to attacks which are likely to come when whistleblowing. Seeing that my own history is filled with things which could be used to attack me I believe such a scenario is sufficient to warrant a decision not to whistleblow.

Third on our list of categories to consider when deciding to whistleblow is number five. This one which asks us to check who will support our stance is a little tricky considering the way things played out over the course of the play. At first, it seemed like everyone was on the doctor’s side. Had things not changed, I believe that with such a high degree of support one should (as long as the other categories have been met) go ahead and blow the whistle. Things, however, did change over the course of the play, and upon discovering that one does not have such strong support as was once thought, I take this to be a strong reason not to whistleblow.

The final category which I shall look at is number seven, choose your battles. This goes back to what Miles said about continuing to play the game so long as you have a tolerable average of wins and losses. Although this might be one instance where you must choose to do battle, as was the view held by Dr. Stockmann, I take a different approach. Dr. Stockmann went too far, especially at the end of the play seemingly devoting the rest of his life to seeing that the government pays for its decision. The reason here why I would not have chosen this at a time for me to “do battle” is because the majority of the people wanted the baths to stay open – much like the non-fictional scenario in Tacoma Washington.

An additional whistleblowing topic that I wish to examine is the idea that one should exhaust internal channels before deciding to blow the whistle. I am a little conflicted as to whether Dr. Stockmann wanted to exhaust internal channels before going public. At times he is adamant that things go his way but at other times he is hesitant to attack the government and to hold a public demonstration. It could easily be argued that he did not exhaust internal channels. He raised the issue then demanded that they see things his way and made preparations to go public in a quasi-threat if they decided against his wishes. One must remember that Dr. Stockmann’s hesitation is important as he seems to want to go through more legitimate means than to go public with the paper editorial. So there are arguments on both sides as to whether he really did exhaust internal channels or not. Personally, I believe he did not. My decision to not go public with the information is because after exhausting internal channels (and finding out that the committee still did not agree) I would have decided either to quietly withdraw my service or to submit to authority and continue to serve – having accepted defeat in this instance.

To answer the question why I would have decided not to go public (as it relates to whistleblowing) I would summarize my answer as the following. To begin with, my wife does not want me to do so and I should respect her wishes as the act of whistleblowing affects the entire family. Secondly, because of all the skeletons in my closet, I would be extremely open to personal attacks which in this case are likely to come. Thirdly, I did not have the type of strong unflinching support needed to blow the whistle successfully. Fourthly, I should choose my battles and if I should happen to lose one I should not quit the game entirely but rather submit to authority or withdraw my services quietly. Finally, I should exhaust all means of change internally and again, if this does not work, either withdraw quietly or submit to authority.

So as I have made it clear, I would not have decided to go public with the information on the pollution in the baths. The reasons why are because firstly I do not think that such action falls within the scope of my duties as a civil servant; and secondly because I do not pass several categories concerning when it is appropriate to whistleblow. After having raised the issue I would have conceded authority to the baths’ committee and had I still had a grievance, I would have either resigned or requested a transfer but in both cases would have done so quietly.[9]

[1] James Svara, The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations, (Boston: Jones and Barlett Publishers), 2007, pg. 121

[2] Mark H. Moore, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, section entitled “Public Deliberation, Social Learning, and Leadership,” p. 181

[3] Arthur Isak Applbaum, “The Remains of the Role”, Governance, 6(4), 1993, p. 550

[4] Ibid p. 553

[5] Rufus E. Miles, Jr., “Non-Subservient Civil Servants,” Public Administration Review, 30(6), 1970, p. 620

[6] Miles, (1970) pg. 620

[7] Svara, (2007) pg. 121

[8] Ibid

[9] Although only a handful of references were used for the purpose of this paper, they remain to be the only ones which I thought necessary in answering the question why I would have decided the way in which I did. Issues such as public interest and problems associated with making such a definition are interesting, I felt however that they (and other topics not mentioned in this paper) did not specifically address the question of why, and thus were not relevant to this paper.


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