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Ethics in Software Engineering

I remember hearing about the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015 and thinking back to the years I lived in California. I had grown up in the Midwest, where mandated emissions testing was not a thing. After moving to California in 2009, it was an annoyance that had to be undergone every 2 years for each vehicle you owned. The likelihood of a modern vehicle failing the tests seems minimal, but the possibility was still enough to make me a little nervous since I wasn’t used to the requirement.

“Why wouldn’t a modern vehicle pass?” I’d ask myself, hoping to take some comfort in the fact that everything was routine. Emissions standards were nothing new. Many of the agencies governing emissions were established in the 60’s, so surely a car manufactured 40+ years later would pass any emissions tests. Granted, the emissions requirements get more and more strict as the years pass, but car manufacturers are not so dull as to ignore such an important requirement.

You can imagine, then, my shock that a company would blatantly disregard such standards, lie to the public, and market a vehicle that cheated to pass the tests! A scandal of this magnitude only happens on cable television shows, right? It was dumbfounding. Of course, the press savored every juicy morsel of such a delicious scandal. The legal and financial repercussions for the company were equally staggering. Everyone was left wondering, “How could this have happened?”

Darden Professor Luann Lynch and Carlos Santos (2011) examined that same question. They arrived at three primary factors that drive ethical breakdown in an organization: pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. The engineers were under enormous pressure from higher up the organizational ladder to deliver on such a difficult goal. The opportunity to cheat was present, because the software to detect emissions testing was already developed. Finally, they may have rationalized the decision to cheat under the pretense that the potential penalty would be trivial in proportion to the gains to be made from cheating the system.

It’s hard to say 100% definitively “if I were in the shoes of those engineers, I never would have done that!” because I wasn’t there and I don’t know the entire context surrounding the situation. However, I am fairly certain that if faced with a similar dilemma, I would have the courage to raise the red flag. It would start at the lowest level—the internal engineering team—and proceed higher if the concerns were brushed off. That’s how it works in the military. If you have an issue, you handle it at the lowest level, but if that doesn’t work, you start raising the issue higher and higher up the chain of command. In the civilian world, if your team supervisor won’t listen, you talk to a higher manager. If you get to the CEO and he won’t listen, you talk to a regulatory agency about the matter. Whistle-blower protection laws are in place to ensure there is no workplace retaliation (i.e. getting fired because you reported malpractice), so you can never go wrong with this approach.

It’s hard to say why the Volkswagen engineers made the decisions they did. We can see that the rationalization could have been made from a financial aspect due to what was perceived as a trivial penalty fine, but that doesn’t explain the moral decision. Fear of repercussions for not accomplishing the goal likely played a part in it. It could also be that the engineers scoffed the strict emissions restrictions in the US, believing the restrictions were overreaching and unnecessary. Whatever the case, they failed to take into effect the full legal ramifications and public relations fallout that would ensue. They also made the decision out of the company’s best interest and not in the best interest of the public, and steps taken in that direction can lead to morally questionable grounds.

References

Lynch, L.J., & Santos, C. (2016, October 17). VW Emissions and the 3 Factors That Drive Ethical Breakdown. Retrieved from https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/2016/10/vw-emissions-and-the-3-factors-that-drive-ethical-breakdown/

Patel, P. (2015, September 25). Engineers, Ethics, and the VW Scandal. Retrieved from https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/at-work/education/vw-scandal-shocking-but-not-surprising-ethicists-say