You are most likely familiar with the most recent Volkswagen “ethics scandal,” in which VW engineers programmed 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 programmed 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 the College of Business or the University of Northern Iowa.