on rigor and justification. 11 They must
possess practical skills to address the
complex ethical and societal issues
that surround evolving and emerging
technology. Such education should
be based on a varied diet of participa-tive experiential learning delivered
by those who have a practical understanding of the design, development,
and delivery of software. Contrasting
the Volkswagen Group Code of Conduct with the Software Engineering
Code might provide one means for
experiential learning. Such educated
software engineers might find ways to
prevent the installation of unethical
software of the future.
1. Catalogue of Catastrophe, International Project
Leadership Academy; http://bit.ly/2FvCtkl.
2. Gotterbarn, D., Miller, K. and Rogerson, S. Software
engineering code of ethics is approved. Commun. ACM
42, 10 (Oct. 1999), 102–107 and Computer (Oct. 1999),
3. Leggett, T. V W papers shed light on emissions scandal.
BBC News (Jan. 12, 2017); http://bbc.in/2AWMtz W.
4. Mansouri, N. A case study of Volkswagen unethical
practice in diesel emission test. International Journal
of Science and Engineering Applications 5, 4 (2016),
5. Merkel, R. Where were the whistleblowers in the
Volkswagen emissions scandal? The Conversation 30,
(Sept. 30, 2015); http://bit.ly/2AUeGac.
6. Plant, R. A software engineer reflects on the VW
scandal. The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 15, 2015);
7. Queen, E.L. How could VW be so dumb? Blame
the unethical culture endemic in business. The
Conversation (Sept. 26, 2015); http://bit.ly/1LZV0jO.
8. Ragatz, J.A. What can we learn from the Volkswagen
scandal? Faculty Publications, 2015, Paper 297;
9. Rhodes, C. Democratic business ethics: Volkswagen’s
emissions scandal and the disruption of corporate
sovereignty. Organization Studies 37, 10 (2016),
10. Rogerson, S. Ethics and ICT. In R. Galliers and W.
Currie, Eds. The Oxford Handbook on Management
Information Systems: Critical Perspectives and New
Directions. Oxford University Press, 2011, 601–622.
11. Rogerson, S. Future Vision, Special Issue— 20 years of
E THICOMP. Journal of Information, Communication
and Ethics in Society 13, 3/4 (2015), 346–360.
12. Siano, A. et al. More than words: Expanding the taxonomy
of greenwashing after the Volkswagen scandal. Journal
of Business Research 71(C), (2017), 27–37.
13. Software Fail Watch 2016, Quarter One, Tricentis;
14. Stanwick, P. and Stanwick, S. Volkswagen emissions
scandal: The perils of installing illegal software.
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Research 6, 1 (2017), 18.
15. Trope, R.L. and Ressler, E.K. Mettle fatigue: VW’s
single-point-of-failure ethics. IEEE Security & Privacy
14, 1 (2016), 12–30.
16. U. S. Department of Justice. Volkswagen AG agrees
to plead guilty and pay $4.3 billion in criminal and
civil penalties and six Volkswagen executives and
employees are indicted in connection with conspiracy
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2017); http://bit.ly/2j7m T5M.
17. Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Group Code of Conduct,
2010; http://bit.ly/21I YPF8.
Simon Rogerson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor Emeritus
of Computer Ethics in the Centre for Computing and Social
Responsibility at De Montfort University, The Gateway,
Leicester, U. K.
Copyright held by author.
ments, to the employer or the client.”
There is some evidence that concern
was raised about the efficacy of the
defeat software but it seems those in
dissent allowed themselves to be
managed towards deception.
Principle 3.03 “identify, define and
address ethical, economic, cultural, le-
gal and environmental issues related
to work projects.” The EPA regulations
are explicit and are legally binding.
From the evidence accessed it is un-
clear as to whether software engineers
knew of the illegality of their actions.
Nevertheless ignorance cannot and
must not be a form of defence.
Principle 6.06 “obey all laws govern-
ing [the] work, unless, in exceptional
circumstances, such compliance is in-
consistent with the public interest.”
This relates to the analysis under prin-
ciple 3.03. Compliance to further the
prosperity of Volkswagen was at the ex-
pense of legal compliance.
Principle 6.07 “be accurate in stat-
ing the characteristics of software on
which they work, avoiding not only
false claims but also claims that might
reasonably be supposed to be specula-
tive, vacuous, deceptive, misleading, or
doubtful.” Software engineers could
argue internally that the software in-
deed performed as it was designed to.
However, the design was to achieve
regulatory and public deception.
Principle 6. 13 “report significant violations of this Code to appropriate
authorities when it is clear that consultation with people involved in these
significant violations is impossible,
counterproductive or dangerous.” Given the apparent corporate culture
within Volkswagen there was little
point in reporting concerns further up
the line. In fact the corporate code
seems at odds with the professional
code regarding this point. Software engineers failed to report these breaches
to appropriate authorities.
Professionals, who must have been
party to this illegal and unethical act,
developed and implemented this soft-
ware. Those who undertake the plan-
ning, development, and operation of
software have obligations to ensure
integrity of output and overall to con-
tribute to the public good. 10 The ethi-
cal practice of software engineers is
paramount. Practice comprises proc-
ess and product. Process concerns vir-
tuous conduct of software engineers,
whereas product concerns whether
software is deemed to be ethically vi-
able. Actions and outcomes in the
Volkswagen case appear to have failed
on both counts.
These serious issues related to professional practice must be addressed.
It is hoped such issues are exceptional
but sadly it is likely they are commonplace given the ongoing plethora of
software disasters (see, for example,
Catalogue of Catastrophe1 and Software Fail Watch13). Unethical actions
related to software engineering can be
addressed from two sides. One side focuses on resisting the temptation to
perform unethical practice while the
other focuses on reducing the opportunity of performing unethical practice. Society at large needs competent,
ethical, and altruistic professionals to
deliver societally acceptable, fit-for-purpose software. Both of these can be
helped by education, but education
will not suffice without adequate social supports.
In order to fulfill software engineering duties, an individual must
fully understand the professional responsibilities and obligations of the
role. These are explicitly laid out in
the Software Engineering Code of Ethics
and Professional Practice and as such
individuals must know and apply it to
their everyday work. To achieve this,
the effective education of new professionals is essential. Teaching technology in isolation is unacceptable and
dangerous. Software engineers need
a broader education to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to act in
a socially responsible manner not on
the basis of instinct and anecdote but
can be addressed
from two sides.