Weekend Comment of the Day #2: “The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications”

GermanFlagVWThe second Comment of the Day, from prolific commenter Michael R, explores how the Volkswagen plot may have been nourished by industry-crushing over-regulation.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications”:

This scandal is worse that you present it. When you look at it, our government encourages such conduct. When you look at what happened, it sure looks like our wonderful Democrats hate the United States and the companies and working Americans. In 1998, the government went after US diesel manufacturers for a less-devious defeat device (it seems that it worked only when the engine was under strain and the emission controls worked at least some of the time during normal operation). They were fined and had to pay for environmental remediation to the tune of $1 billion. The software was not as essential to the running of the engines as VW’s, as the companies were able to make the engines compliant with a software fix.

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Weekend Comment of the Day #1: “The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications”

VW handWeekend comments at Ethics Alarms are typically down about 20% on weekends, but they often make up in quality what they lack in quantity. There were several comments that materially enhanced the posts that inspired them, and I’m going to begin the week’s ethics safari by featuring a few as Comments of the Day.

The first is from Charlie Green on the VW scandal. This is his wheelhouse, and I was hoping he’d weigh in.

This is his Comment of the Day on the post, “The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications”

(I’ll have a brief note at the end.)

A similar point was made about the evident contradictions in ENRON’s mission statements. Just as this is an ethics issue, so is it a trust issue, and one I’ve been writing about as well.

The only thing I’d add is to caution against the simplification that these are conscious evil-doers. The truth is always messier.

I’m sure very few employees at VW felt a fully conscious awareness of wrong doing on their parts. That doesn’t mitigate the importance of full on prosecution of leaders, but it does mean we need to recognize the nature of human frailty and group-think, as well as the huge impacts of environment.

Demonization doesn’t work here past a few top people —like [resigned CEO]Winterkorn, who has no excuse for not having known. But this is also a particularly strong case for the proposition that environments pollute moral behavior – it’s not just bad apples.

The best case I’ve seen for this argument is here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/25/business/international/problems-at-volkswagen-start-in-the-boardroom.html?_r=0

And a great case for moral outrage not just at individuals but at our overall institutions is today, from the great Henry Mintzberg, here:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/volkswagen-corruption-crisis-isnt-a-scandal-its-a-syndrome/article26479332/comments/

To paint this as just a few evil blackhats gone wild is to miss the true nature of evil – it’s endemic in the culture, and that’s much scarier.

I’m back, just to note that Charles’ message is the one that had become the career cause of social scientist Phillip Zimbardo, whose work I have referenced several times.

The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications

VOLKWAGEN

In case you were too distracted by the Pope, you probably noticed that Volkswagen has been caught red-handed in a massive scandal involving cheating on the emissions testing of 11 million diesel-powered cars sold in recent years. The costs to the company may be as much as eighteen billion dollars in the US alone. This is by far the biggest of the many automotive scandals—the fiery Pinto, GM’s deadly ignition switches, Toyota’s self-accelerating cars or Ford-Firestone’s exploding tires—in scope, if not in public policy impact.

Diesel is more popular in Europe than in America, in large part because of environmental testing standards. Gasoline engines emit more carbon dioxide, diesel engines, which are more efficient fuel-wise, emit far more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than gasoline engines. Since the introduction of the US Clean Air Act of 1970, NOx emissions are subjected to more stringent controls than CO₂ emissions here, while across the pond, CO₂ is more tightly controlled than NOx. Thus diesel automobiles make up one third of the passenger vehicle fleet in Europe, but are a relative rarity in the U.S. The sales of diesel cars has been on the rise in recent years, however. Now we know why.

Volkswagen, which manufactures many of the beasts, devised and installed a code functioning as a “defeat device” to sense when one of its diesel vehicles was being tested for nitrogen oxide emissions. test. Once a test was detected, the software would reduce torque and NOx emissions, while under normal conditions, that is, when the vehicle was not being tested for emissions, the car would be guided by a separate program that would increase acceleration, torque, and fuel economy.

Clever! Also unethical and, obviously, illegal. Continue reading