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Volkswagen Emissions Scandal: An Ethical Analysis

Description of the Ethical Dilemma

My manager at Volkswagen has asked me to join a team developing software to bypass emissions testing regulations in the United States. Specifically, we would create technology to detect when Volkswagen vehicles are undergoing emissions testing and alter the vehicle’s performance to reduce emissions during the test (Ferrell et al., 2019). However, when driven typically on the road, the vehicles’ emissions would exceed legal limits, which is unethical because we would be deliberately deceiving regulators and consumers about the emission levels of Volkswagen cars. The software would enable Volkswagen to sell vehicles that do not comply with emissions laws, which are designed to protect public health and the environment, giving Volkswagen an unfair advantage over competitors who operate legally. It also means customers are buying polluting vehicles based on false emissions data, believing they are more environmentally friendly than they are (Gustafson, 2013). While refusing to participate in this deception may hurt my career at Volkswagen, I have an ethical responsibility not to enable fraud or harm the public through pollution knowingly. However, the consequences of dissent at Volkswagen could be severe, potentially leading to being shunned within the company or even termination. This places me in a difficult position, torn between my conscience and professional interests. I believe the deception we are being asked to perpetrate violates ethics and the law.

Personal Response

I believe the core ethical issue is that Volkswagen is knowingly developing technology to evade emissions laws and mislead regulators and consumers about the environmental impacts of its vehicles. This prioritizes profits and competitive advantage over ethics, compliance, and social responsibility. However, dissenting comes with the risk of losing my job or stalling my career. My initial response is that I would refuse to participate in developing the emissions deception software. I view actively engineering vehicles to circumvent regulations as unethical. While losing my job may hurt me personally, I have a responsibility not to cause harm to society. I would justify this decision by appealing to ethical principles, values, and laws. Deceiving regulators violates principles of honesty and transparency (Hotten, 2015). False advertising breaches duties to provide customers complete information to make informed purchases. Skirting emissions regulations ignores the intent of these laws – to protect public health and the environment. Studies show excess emissions cause respiratory illness and thousands of premature deaths from air pollution annually. Volkswagen would unfairly benefit while imposing unethical externalities on society.

As an employee, I’m obligated to avoid knowingly enabling illegal or dangerous activity, per ethical codes of conduct. The IEEE Code of Ethics states engineers must “avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest” and “be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data.” Participating in emissions deception conflicts with these duties. From a utilitarian perspective, the societal harms outweigh benefits to Volkswagen. Kant’s categorical imperative suggests Volkswagen cannot rationally want all companies to deceive regulators, as this would undermine functioning institutions (Reuters, 2023). A moral rights view says deception violates consumers’ rights to full product information. Personally, I value environmental protection, public health, and honest dealing. My cultural background emphasizes social responsibility and ethical business practices. While losing my job concerns me, participating in deception violates my principles. I have a responsibility to “do the right thing” based on my values. However, in reality, the decision is difficult given the power dynamics. Refusing risks my job if Volkswagen does not allow transfers or keep dissenters. Yet participation mars my ethics and makes me complicit. Resigning may be necessary, but is difficult financially. Speaking out may label me a troublemaker, damaging my career. Staying silent enables harm. There are risks either way.

One option is to raise my objections, but ultimately work on the project under protest if forced. This compromises my ethics, but may be necessary for practical reasons (Desjardins, 2020). I would mitigate harm by advocating for more stringent testing to expose excess emissions, trying to minimize deception. Remaining at Volkswagen allows working for change from inside (Hotten, 2015). Alternatively, I could discreetly report concerns to ethics officers or regulators, hoping to prompt investigations and avoid retaliation. This allows avoiding direct participation while upholding ethics. But it may not engender real change if complaints are buried. Blowing the whistle publicly (e.g. media exposes) could force reforms but would likely end my career at Volkswagen. Yet speaking truth to power can catalyze cultural change necessary to prevent recurrences. A key question is whether staying or exiting allows more positive impact over time.

My cultural background emphasizes caution in business dealings, following rules and conventions. This engenders reluctance to dissent or “rock the boat.” There is pressure to comply rather than challenge superiors. However, loyalty must have limits, avoiding complicity in clear wrongdoing. Moral courage to dissent respectfully may be necessary despite cultural tendencies. Risks abound, I lean towards refusal with whistleblowing if Volkswagen proceeds unethically. The gravity of harm outweighs self-interest (Amelang & Wehrmann, 2017). Creative solutions like anonymous reports could allow upholding ethics while limiting personal risk. Resignation may become necessary. Dissent always carries a cost, but perpetuating injustice violates moral duty. I would strive to dissent with courage, integrity and care for all stakeholders. Ethics sometimes requires sacrifice – the heaviest burdens falling on those who first speak out. My lasting hope would be catalyzing positive change.

Utilitarian Ethical Framework

The utilitarian framework I initially used to assess the emissions deception software focused on weighing the overall costs and benefits to society. Utilitarianism seeks the decision that produces the “greatest good for the greatest number” (McCombs School of Business, 2023). It suggests refusing to participate and exposing Volkswagen’s deception maximizes social utility. My original objection centered on public health and environmental harm from increased pollution, which studies show causes thousands of premature deaths annually. These massive societal costs seem to outweigh economic benefits to Volkswagen in a utilitarian calculus. Even potential job losses from reputational damage may not exceed the harmful health and environmental impacts on society as a whole. However, utilitarianism recognizes that precisely forecasting future outcomes is difficult. A whistleblower scenario that severely damages Volkswagen could generate large-scale job losses and financial hardship rippling through communities. This illustrates that in practice, a utilitarian analysis must weigh many competing interests across diverse stakeholders. There are good-faith arguments on both sides.

For example, Volkswagen could contend that most emissions occur outside of densely populated areas where health impacts are minimal. They could cite the positives of increased employment, tax revenue, and regional economic growth. They may claim damage to the company could cause more net harm than limited excess emissions (McCombs School of Business, 2023). These are debates utilitarianism could accommodate. Ultimately, I still lean towards refusal and exposure based on probable impacts. But utilitarianism recognizes the inherent complexities of real-world cost-benefit analyses. There are persuasive arguments arising from Volkswagen’s perspective that provide countervailing considerations. Utilitarian reasoning requires grappling with the likelihood of various impacts across all affected groups. In this case, that includes employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, governments, the public and the environment. An honest utilitarian calculus gives proportional weight to competing interests. Utilitarianism informed my initial objection, its application here is complex, requiring weighing all projected stakeholders benefits and harms (McCombs School of Business, 2023). It allows questioning my own assumptions through examining alternate viewpoints. However, the massive public health consequences still seem to warrant refusal and whistleblowing in a utilitarian analysis if deception proceeds. Though exact forecasts are uncertain, the societal harms likely outweigh the benefits overall.

Moral Rights Ethics Analysis

The moral rights framework centers on ethical duties not to infringe upon fundamental human rights. These include rights to life, health, honesty, and transparency. I initially objected based on harms to public health and lack of transparency with regulators and consumers. However, moral rights ethics provides additional support for refusal. A key moral right is consumers’ right to complete, truthful information to make informed purchases. Volkswagen’s deception violates this right by misrepresenting vehicles’ emissions. Even if some consumers may care little about emissions, moral rights focuses on upholding duties rather than consequences. From this view, violating rights by deceiving any consumers is unethical regardless of outcomes (eccorights, 2017). Similarly, moral rights focuses on ethical obligations themselves rather than just impacts. Even if emissions harms were uncertain, as Volkswagen may argue, willfully circumventing regulations designed to protect welfare based on elected leaders’ moral mandates is unethical in itself from a moral rights perspective. Moral rights view also considers Volkswagen’s duties to shareholders and employees. Does Volkswagen have moral obligations to remain profitable and sustain jobs that should limit ethics dissent? This highlights conflicts between competing rights claims that moral reasoning must weigh.

I believe human health and transparency rights take priority here. While business losses could occur, reputational damage from exposed deception and lack of ethics seem the root cause, not dissent itself. The blame falls squarely on those perpetrating the deception. Volkswagen is accountable for ethical breaches more than whistleblowers upholding morality. Moral rights ethics recognizes Volkswagen’s duties to shareholders and employees, willful deception and public health harms seem to supersede. From this view, I should uphold my categorical moral duties to avoid infringing rights, even if dissent risks my career. This contrasts with a utilitarian weighing of harms and benefits (eccorights, 2017). Moral rights focus on the intrinsic wrongness of deception itself as it violates key ethical duties. Though outcomes matter, at core this view holds certain moral obligations as inviolable on principle, regardless of consequences.


In summary, I would decline to participate in Volkswagen’s emissions deception because it seems to violate moral rights, ethics, and utilitarianism. The company has strong ethical duties to be transparent with regulators and consumers and not endanger public health for financial gain. As an employee, I share responsibility for trying to uphold ethics within Volkswagen by avoiding complicity in practices that infringe on moral rights and negatively impact society.


Amelang, S., & Wehrmann, B. (2017, July 31). “Dieselgate” – a timeline of the car emissions fraud scandal in Germany. Clean Energy Wire.

Desjardins, J. R. (2020). An introduction to business ethics. New York, NY Mcgraw-Hill Education.

eccorights. (2017, February 15). Careful with that Song Mash-Up: Understanding Moral Rights and Infringements | ECCO Inc.:

Ferrell, O. C., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2019). Business ethics : ethical decision making and cases. Cengage Learning.

Gustafson, A. (2013). In Defense of a Utilitarian Business Ethic. Business and Society Review118(3), 325–360.

Hotten, R. (2015, December 10). Volkswagen: The scandal explained. BBC News.

McCombs School of Business. (2023). Utilitarianism. Ethics Unwrapped.

Reuters. (2023, June 27). Factbox: The state of legal cases in VW’s diesel scandal. Reuters.


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