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The Volkswagen scandal is not an ethical issue

August 17, 2016 - 12:00am
Craig VanSandt

You are most likely familiar with the most recent Volkswagen “ethics scandal,” in which VW engineers programed computers in their diesel cars to detect emission tests. During the tests, the vehicles would alter their engine operations to meet legal emission standards. But under normal driving conditions, the cars released emissions into the air that were forty times the legal limit.

Computer programming experts I’ve talked with say such programming cannot have happened accidentally. Such programming had to have been the result of deliberate actions. These deliberate actions indicates a conscious decision to carry out this subterfuge. The questions of who made the decision, when, and at what level of the organization are beyond the scope of this inquiry. The fact that there was a deliberate decision made is the critical factor.

Most people condemn VW officials for taking this unethical action. But the consequences of the decision have been negative for customers, investors, managers, and those breathing the air, which makes the decision not about ethics at all.

Ethical dilemmas versus moral temptations

Rushworth Kidder, in his book How Good People Make Tough Choices, explains the difference between an ethical dilemma (a right versus right choice) and a moral temptation (a right versus wrong decision). An ethical dilemma has more than one moral solution, while the moral temptation does not. Presumably, in making the choice to falsify emission test results, the decision makers at VW did not “misunderstand” it as a right versus right dilemma. It is clear the alternatives were right versus wrong.

How then, do we understand their decision to do wrong? Is it possible that the VW officials were so badly misinformed that they believed they were doing the right thing? Were they simpletons who couldn’t figure it out? Were they evil, finding pleasure in doing the wrong thing? I don’t believe any of these explanations are accurate.

The amoral theory of business

One explanation is that they didn’t recognize that the decision had a moral element to it. Several ethicists have noted that business has become separated from other social institutions, in which common ethical considerations are irrelevant—the amoral theory of business or the separation thesis. In that case, the decision becomes a simple cost versus benefit analysis. Weigh the short-term benefits of increased sales, higher profits, bigger bonuses, and rising stock prices against the longer-term (and remote chance) risks of being caught and punished. According to news reports, VW considered both to be minimal. With this mindset, doing the “wrong” thing isn’t really wrong—it’s a low-risk way to get closer to maximizing profits. All in all, a pretty easy choice for the VW officials.

Moral motivation and courage

Another explanation comes from James Rest’s four-component model of moral behavior. Rest claims that in order for someone to behave ethically, at least four things are required —moral awareness, judgment, motivation, and courage. Because VW engineers programed the computers to provide readings only during test conditions, we can conclude that they were “aware” of the ethical issue. Similarly, it’s likely that they were able to make adequate moral judgments about the issue. The fact that they chose to cover up the programming shows that they understood what would have been “right,” even though they decided on the “wrong” path.

Moral motivation refers to the relative importance that one places on doing the right thing, compared to all the other motivations one may have. VW officials were not motivated to do the right thing. Increased sales and market share were stronger motivators. Finally, moral courage is the strength to carry through with a right action, in spite of obstacles to that end. VW’s culture did not support dissent, so significant levels of courage would have been required to oppose the decision.

It’s not an issue of ethics

VW’s moral failure appears to have occurred not in judgment. Rather it seems that the downfall happened in moral motivation and courage. Thus, the standard call for enhanced ethics training (almost always focusing on moral judgment) would be useless.

If the amoral theory of business explanation is correct, the solution would be better laws and regulations, tighter enforcement of existing laws, and stiffer penalties. Alternatively, society could make clear that business is not an amoral enterprise.

If the real issue is lack of moral motivation, the cure would be more societal emphasis on doing the right thing and less on profits. If lack of moral courage is the problem, likely resolutions would be organizational cultures that emphasize doing the right thing (thus making moral courage less important) and/or making whistle blowing more appealing.

Many of the “ethical scandals” we observe in business are not about ethics at all—they often result from conscious decisions to do the wrong thing because those making the decisions are motivated to pursue goals other than the ethical action.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.


Craig VanSandt

Craig VanSandt

As the David W. Wilson Chair in Business Ethics, VanSandt is charged with fostering awareness, discussion, and debate about ethical practices in business; educating students and the community about the social and ethical issues facing business; establishing UNIBusiness as Iowa's best recognized platform for business ethics and the Wilson Chair as the most prominent authority of business ethics; acting as a catalyst for high quality research and debate regarding business ethics and the role of business in society; and enabling business to embrace an expanded role in promoting the common good. He also serves on the leadership team, Center for Academic Ethics.

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Submitted by Jonah Johnson on
I agree with you that what this company did was more of a moral issue than an ethical issue. This issue was more of a moral issue because this company had two obvious choices to choose from. First, it could choose to program its test cars' engines to run how it usually does or start programming all the cars it sells for now on to meet legal emission standards. Second, it could choose to program its cars to alternate its engines only during the emission tests than what they normally do. In this situation there was one or two choices that were the right choice. While there was another choice that was the wrong choice. A moral issue has only a few choices which these can be easily identified as right or wrong choices. An ethical issue on the other hand involves or considers more choices and more circumstances than what a moral issue would. So, for an ethical issue the right or wrong choices are harder to identify.

Submitted by Dylan Wiedner on
I really like the fact that you brought up Kidders idea of moral temptation vs ethical dilemma. I think that all of the points that you brought up about this situation being more of a moral temptation are very true. With the program being designed specifically to just pass the emissions test, it shows that at least someone in VW was aware of what was going on. And it also shows that they had the ability to make a correct decision, or a wrong decision like what was made. I think that this is a very interesting topic, because without that small piece of information, so many people in that organization could have thought that they were doing the ethical thing by making sure that the car passed the emissions test. I also agree with you the idea of enforcing stricter rules and implementing stronger penalties for moral temptations to get people to think about the repercussions, because like you stated, the risk vs reward showed to be worth taking the risk for VW.