Lost in his own despair, James Liang, an engineer at Volkswagen, stared at his own reflection seeing his life slip right in front of him. After a long day of trial debating whether to accept the consequences or fulfill his duty, James knew this decision will not only change his life but affect many others. Volkswagen, or the “people’s car”, is a well-known automaker and is the largest in Europe. Their reputation is built on making people happy. At first, Volkswagen was not a contender in the automotive industry but when the Beetle was introduced, it became an economic and symbolic element in Germany.
Fast forward to June 1, 2016, James Liang stands to face his fate. James Liang pleaded guilty for his role in a 10-year conspiracy to defraud U. S. regulators and U. S. Volkswagen customers by implementing software used to cheat U. S. emission tests in the majority of Volkswagen clean diesel vehicles. Liang chose his duty over the consequences guided by his self-interest and better good. Pleading guilty to a criminal offense conveys that the crime committed is accepted, along with the facts alleged by the police or the prosecuting body.
By Liang pleading guilty, he admitted full responsibility and fulfilled his duty as an engineer. Liang spent over 25 years with Volkswagen and moved to the U. S. as the head of the Diesel Competence unit in the U. S. Liang and his co-conspirators began to design a “clean diesel” engine for sale in the U. S. Liang’s reputation was jeopardized when he realized that the design couldn’t meet the U. S. emission standards and also satisfy their consumers. In this case, he chose his self-interest and reputation to move forward with the project even though it didn’t meet the requirements.
He accepted the consequences and did what was best for the company and for himself. By accepting the consequences and cheating the system, Liang faced multiple backlashes to his and Volkswagen’s reputation. In the end, Liang followed Immanuel Kant’s theory. Immanuel Kant’s moral theory is an example of a deontological moral theory, which derives from the Greek word, deontos meaning duty. This theory describes the rightness or wrongness of actions, which do not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill a duty.
It also provides a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and justifications for evaluating the moral value of human actions. A human action has moral value when the will is perfectly aligned with the duty. Will is essential in determining actions, as a good will is essential to having moral value. A good will can be seen as the Holy Grail: something so valuable that should never be traded. Duty is a motivation distinct from self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy, and happiness.
With human actions, it is the duty of uniformity of the will to the universal moral law. Duty is grounded in the framework of reason itself and nothing else. The will is defines as good when it acts out of duty, not out of human desires. These acts can create a subjective principle that one uses to determine a course of action. This is known as a maxim. It is one’s duty to act on the maxims, or rules of actions, that could sustain the will to be a universal law. The categorical imperative is a rule for testing maxims against what is morally acceptable.
Kant’s theory can define many human actions but it does not define the consequences of the actions. John Stewart Mill described utilitarianism as a form of consequentialism. This theory describes human actions as being morally right or wrong solely on their effects. There are two types of utilitarianism: rule and act. Rule utilitarianism describes a person’s act is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good and an act utilitarianism describes a person’s act as morally right if and only if it produces at least as much happiness as any other act.
These two theories are on opposite spectrums, Kantian being a theory based on universal moral laws and utilitarianism being a theory based on the effects of human actions. Liang broke three main rules that questioned his moral ethics: he cheated the system; he lied to society, and he put people at risk. The consequences of his actions were overshadowed by his self-interest. Utilitarianism clearly states that the actions are morally right if and only if it produces the greater good. In Liang’s eyes, this may have been the case.
Volkswagen is the “people’s car” and the company had to live to its word no matter the consequences. This was their greater good, but not their duty. As Kant once said, “Good without qualifications, except a good will. ” The sense of moral goodness cannot be corrupted. Having this sense of goodness is pure and is viewed within achieving one’s moral goodness. Moral qualities in a person can change through this corruption. Volkswagen’s and Liang’s self-interest corrupted their moral goodness by justifying their actions. Liang’s will and moral principles were questioned by his decisions as the head of the Diesel Competence.
There were many factors that led Liang to continue cheating the system for almost 10 years before it was discovered. Loyalty and integrity to Volkswagen had a major toll on Liang. As stated in the NSPE Code of Ethics, “the standard of integrity, professionalism, and confidentiality with all members is bound to respect the work as interpreters”. Liang had the obligation to keep his loyalty to the company. His obligation to keep his integrity slowly became impermissible when speculation from California regulators found discrepancies between the cars’ emission in the lab and on the road.
His creativity to cover up this big lie was not part of his duty as an engineer anymore. Liang’s free will was the deciding factor of his plea. Liang acted through his maxims to legislate the universal law and his moral obligation. As stated by Kant “the Idea of will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law. ” Universalizability states the categorical imperative as deifying whether the maximum of an action could be acted upon where everyone would act in similar circumstances.
The property of universalizability can be applied to Liang’s obligation and duty as an engineer to guide him to do the right action. Liang had multiple factors that influenced his decisions as an engineer for more than 25 years. In the end, Liang realized it was never the consequences that made his actions right. He cheated the system, lied to society, and put people at risk. Liang’s actions at Volkswagen were not justified by his will or duty; they were justified by his self-interest. By categorical imperative, he faced his fate and accepted the moral law.