Greed for Gain: A Case Study in Dishonor
“Your integrity is a valuable commodity,” a teacher once remarked to me when I was in school. “Invest in it and treasure its returns.” As a teacher, father, and school leader, I have always sought to share this sage advice, but also to build upon it as well. Integrity and honor are pervasive virtues, either evident or absent in all aspects of our daily life. In the life of a school, it is important to emphasize that honor and integrity are not solely limited to a student’s academic responsibilities. They are virtues that are accessible each day in a myriad of situations. At Trinity-Pawling, it is incumbent upon us as teachers to teach our students how best to avail themselves of these opportunities to exercise these virtues so that they become habits rather than acts.
I have always had a strong affinity for Volkswagens, “the people’s car.” During the course of my childhood, my parents owned three of them. As an adult, I have owned two Volkswagens. Today, my son and daughter each own a VW.
The appeal of the VW for the Taylor family was always the combination of safety, efficiency, and enjoyment. They are fun cars to drive. From a customer satisfaction perspective, the Taylors have been loyal customers for quite a long time. Now, this loyalty is being tested for good reason.
After denying allegations for over a year, Volkswagen recently admitted that stealth software had been installed on many of its diesel vehicles that would essentially prevent the emissions controls from working unless the cars were undergoing emissions testing. Understandably, this news has sent the world’s largest automobile maker into a tailspin. The company’s CEO has resigned amidst the scandal; the company has allocated billions of dollars to the recall process; exorbitant fines are on the horizon; and, prison terms for those directly responsible for the fraud are likely.
While the short-term consequences for Volkswagen are, indeed, staggering in their scope, the prospects for the company’s long-term future are equally dismal. Without question, their brand has taken a major beating. The situation is exasperated further when one considers that those purchasing the diesel vehicles were likely doing so because they felt good about their investment and their contributions to environmental citizenship. In reality, though, the vehicles with the fraudulent software were emitting as much as 40 times more toxins into the air than the standards allowed.
The Volkswagen debacle is far more encompassing and noxious than other manufacturing recalls because it combines both greed and dishonor. In an effort to promote “clean diesel” technology in the United States where the environmental standards are more comprehensive, Volkswagen dishonored themselves as a company. They created a false impression of environmental citizenship that would appeal to those interested in such stewardship. If dishonor can be defined as trading integrity for short term-gain, this particular situation is a prime example of dishonor that will have long-term consequences for this company.
Not only did VW compromise its own integrity with the fraud, it attracted thousands of investors who unknowingly were contributing to something they felt strongly against: environmental degradation. Moreover, the dishonesty initiated by a relatively small number of employees will have adverse effects on thousands of innocent people whose lives are dependent on Volkswagen for income and stability: workers, designers, technicians, dealers, etc.
The VW scandal provides allegorical relevance to all who work with young people. In an era where “situational ethics” can create seeming ambiguities between right and wrong, the VW scandal provides a clear backdrop of a stark ethical void. By installing Trojan-horse software, Volkswagen traded their brand integrity for the promise of profitable gain. While it remains to be seen just how deep an impact this trade will have on people’s loyalty to Volkswagen, I suspect that many current VW owners may never choose to buy another in the future.
The impact of this scandal can speak directly to young people as an example of the long-term implications associated with the loss of integrity. Trinity-Pawling aspires to cultivate a culture of honor that permeates the teaching and learning environment of the School. As such, care and time are invested into discussions associated with integrity and honor with the goal of teaching young people that exchanges of integrity for ill-gotten gain are trades that can haunt the soul. The wisdom of Proverbs speaks directly to this: “Such is the end[a] of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors” (Proverbs 1:19). I suspect this is a lesson that Volkswagen will be grappling with for a long time to come.
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