The Volkswagen Scandal: An Engineer’s Dilemma

by Ailsssss on February 11, 2017 - 12:06am

              Volkswagen had always been a reputed brand – promoting “the people’s car” as well as their low gas emissions – until 2015, when a scandal erupted regarding the company’s fraud in emission tests in the US. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered a software installed in Volkswagen cars that was able to detect the parameters set by the EPA, and therefore allowed them change their performance to match the federal emission levels. However, whenever outside of test mode, the cars would switch to a separate mode that emitted up to 40 times more gaz than permitted by the government (Atiyeh). In the light of this controversy, Volkswagen had to recall more than 10 million of their cars worldwide as well as face a loss of roughly $18 billion dollars (Snyder).

             The moral dilemma in this situation revolves around the engineers who were responsible of designing and producing the software but who did not reveal the truth before launching the cars in the market. On one hand, these professionals were threatened by a loss of career if they chose to speak the truth; on the other hand, they were producing something highly unethical. In other words, the dilemma opposes honesty and selfishness (from wanting to keep their job) to the truth and the good of the environment.  Every aspect of the ethical frameworks suggests that the engineers should reveal the truth about their company, but utilitarianism remains the most convincing argument on the matter.

             According to deontology, the engineers should reveal the fact that they are contributing to cheating the American government, since honesty is a universal law and this system requires its adherents to follow these laws in order to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, by being honest and speaking the truth, the Volkswagen engineers would potentially save our planet from a fair amount of damage – something most would agree is a good outcome. However, by doing so, these engineers would also be betraying the company that is offering them a career. So, although they would be telling the truth, this betrayal is, in itself, morally bad. Thus, the ambiguity lies in the fact that both truth and betrayal lead to a favorable outcome.

             If we look at the situation from the utilitarian perspective that promotes the greatest good for humanity as a whole, the engineers are also bound to tell the truth, bearing in mind the benefit they would bring to the environment and to those living in it. A better air would lead to a healthier (thus happier) life for more than 7 billion people. Therefore, stopping the production of the cheating devices early on would lead to the best outcome. However, this system also does not allow the engineers to focus on themselves: they have to risk losing their jobs (or getting sued by the company for lack of loyalty) without any protest.  

             It is slightly harder to explain this dilemma in terms of virtue ethics – where only a virtuous person can commit a “good” act – since there is no way of knowing the agents’ virtues. The solution varies according the engineers’ values. For example, if they highly value honesty, they would reveal truth; however, if their biggest value is loyalty, or ambition, they would stay faithful to their company and do what’s best for their career. The fact that we can justify the employee’s silence on the matter by saying there are either loyal (which is a virtue) or selfish (a vice) demonstrates the flaws in virtue ethics.

             In the end, the utilitarian perspective has the most convincing argumentation as to why revealing the truth early on the production process would lead to the best outcome. It takes into consideration the wellbeing of the world’s population, and that should be everyone’s most important duty, especially in this period and time, when hatred is so widely spread.


Works Cited

Hassler, Susan. IEEE Spectrum. 2015,

Hotten, Russell. BBC News. 2015,

Atiyeh, Clifford. Car And Driver. 2017,

Snyder, Jesse. VW has lost a lot more than money. 2016,