Ethical Dilemma

Mar 2, 2018 |

“Volkswagen Suspends Top Lobbyist amid Inquiry into Diesel Tests on Monkeys”

According to the article, Volkswagen suspended its chief lobbyist recently amid a growing furor over experiments on monkeys that were meant to promote the virtues of diesel-powered vehicles, but now threaten to further undermine the German car industry and to increase political instability in Berlin.

Thomas Steg, the suspended Volkswagen executive, is a former aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The widening controversy about the monkey research, detailed by The New York Times last week, highlighted what critics have called the overly cozy relationship between the country’s carmakers and the government.

Germany has often balked at efforts to tighten regulations on auto emissions and to improve enforcement, and the latest uproar has put Ms. Merkel on the defensive as she struggles to form a coalition government after winning a narrow plurality in elections late last year.

Adding to the political fallout, the European Commission declared recently that Germany and eight other countries had not done enough to combat dismal air quality. The commission said it planned to pursue legal action against the nine countries at the European Union’s highest court for their chronic failure to enforce air quality standards

Ms. Merkel, through her spokesperson, was among the political leaders and auto industry executives who in recent days condemned the experiments at a lab in Albuquerque, in which monkeys were exposed to diesel exhaust. The project was financed by German carmakers, who wanted to show that diesel cars were less of a threat to human health than groups such as the World Health Organization have claimed.

A separate project financed by the carmakers subjected human volunteers in Germany to doses of nitrogen dioxide, one of diesel’s most noxious byproducts.

Environmental groups and other critics of Volkswagen said the suspension of Mr. Steg, whose formal title at Volkswagen is head of external relations and sustainability, made him a sacrificial lamb meant to insulate the company’s top managers from consequences.

These critics drew parallels with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the company initially said that a small number of rogue engineers were responsible for installing software intended to dupe regulators. German prosecutors have since identified dozens of suspects.

“They are again playing the game where the subordinates were the culprits,” said Christian Strenger, a former member of a commission that wrote Germany’s rules on corporate governance. Mr. Strenger is among the people suing Volkswagen for violating its legal obligations to shareholders.

Karmenu Vella, the European commissioner responsible for environmental matters, met with ministers from the nine offending countries in Brussels recently and said afterward that they had failed to present credible plans for reducing pollution.

Mr. Vella said 400,000 people in the European Union died prematurely each year as a result of air pollution from all sources “because of a massive, widespread failure to address the problem.” He expressed frustration that “a sense of urgency is not always evident across member states.”

The experiments that preceded Mr. Steg’s suspension were conducted at a laboratory in Albuquerque for the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, known by its German initials, E.U.G.T.

Although ostensibly independent, the organization was financed entirely by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. (Bosch, a major German auto parts supplier, had been a member but dropped out in 2013.) In recent days, the three carmakers have repudiated the work of the group, which folded last year.

Yet all three were represented on the organization’s five-person board of directors, and all three contributed money to the group. The research on monkeys had a budget of more than $700,000, and was just one of the organization’s numerous projects.

Another study financed by the group subjected 25 volunteers to low doses of nitrogen dioxide. The research, conducted in 2015, was authorized by an ethics commission at the RWTH Aachen University in Aachen, Germany, where it took place.

Nonetheless, images of humans being exposed to gas in airtight chambers raised uncomfortable associations with Germany’s Nazi past.

The experiments on monkeys at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque — carried out in 2014, a year before Volkswagen was caught using software to cloak excess diesel emissions — involved exposing a group of the animals to exhaust from a late-model diesel Volkswagen; a second group of monkeys was exposed to exhaust from an older Ford diesel pickup truck.

After breathing diluted exhaust for four hours, the monkeys were examined for signs of lung inflammation or other ill effects. The research did not kill the monkeys, but it was unclear what happened to them after the experiments were completed.

Results of the research had not been published by the time the E.U.G.T. disbanded last year.
Matthias Müller, Volkswagen’s chief executive, said in a statement recently that the company is conducting a thorough investigation of the research “and will draw all the necessary consequences.”

Discussion Questions

1. In your reasoned opinion, is animal research inherently unethical? Why or why not? What if such research is conducted specifically for the benefit of human beings?

These are opinion questions, so student responses will likely vary.

2. As the article indicates, Volkswagen’s animal research purportedly occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In your opinion, are United States regulatory authorities partially responsible in this case for not discovering such research? Explain your response.

This is an opinion question, so student responses may vary. Generally, due to governmental immunity, regulatory authorities are not legally responsible for failing to lend proper oversight. The real issue here is whether the failure of regulatory authorities to discover such research in a timely manner constitutes an ethical breach. In your author’s opinion, predominant, if not exclusive, responsibility rests with Volkswagen.

3. Comment on the following quote (referenced in the article) from Christian Strenger, former member of a commission that wrote Germany’s rules on corporate governance: “They (Volkswagen) are again playing the game where the subordinates were the culprits.” Should subordinate culpability be a legitimate defense for corporate executives? Why or why not?

Although this is an opinion question, the legal trend is to hold principals responsible for the wrongful actions of their subordinates if the principal either knew or should have known of the violations, and if such violations occurred during the course and scope of the subordinate’s work.