Pipe nightmare Exhaust tests on monkeys: the moral question

The auto industry’s exhaust fume testing on monkeys and people raises questions as to whether morality still has a place at all in business and politics, writes Handelsblatt's publisher.
Ten little monkeys, looking on with dread.

Our auto industry sure knows how to shock. Dieselgate is back and the country’s big three carmakers are making headlines again – this time with exhaust tests on monkeys. Ten primates were forced to breathe toxic fumes for hours on end, pacified by cartoons, under the eye of researchers. What’s even worse is the feigned ignorance of transport politicians and car industry managers. Today, many are saying, “Gosh, I just can’t remember.” Their memories are shaped by their interests.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane. Back in 2013, VW's chief lobbyist in Berlin, Thomas Steg, was verifiably in the know about the toxic experiments on monkeys his company was helping to finance. The VW legal department had explicitly approved the tests– which they had been counting on to whitewash the diesel technology. Steg didn't object.

The habitual indifference of politicians is also on record. The German Bundestag’s diesel investigative committee met 16 months ago. And on September 8, 2016, two experts provided the details of animal testing in connection with the auto industry's diesel emissions inspections, according to the 88-page protocol that Handelsblatt has seen.

The habitual indifference of politicians is also on record

Helmut Greim was one of those experts. He was the professorial chair of toxicology and environmental health at Munich Technical University and member of the Bundestag special committee for the “protection of mankind and the environment.” In June 2015, Germany’s environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, even awarded him the German Federal Cross of Merit with Star.

Greim is a scientist oriented on industry. His take on Dieselgate? No biggie – not as serious as everyone makes it out to be. Diesel emissions are better than their reputation, he said. Greim based his assessment on the tell-all sentence: “That is our information from animal testing.” Unconcerned about the ethics, he went on to provide matter-of-fact information on experiments with humans: Yes, they had also researched how breathing nitrogen dioxide affects the politicians' conspecifics, he joked: “Of course it's short-term exposure,” he lectured the parliamentarians, “because you can't deliberately expose people to different concentrations for a long period of time.” Any follow-up questions from legislators in the audience? Nope. The Christian Democrat, Social Democrat, Green and Leftist politicians in attendance all just nodded. Now they’re rushing to register their disgust.

The wave of disgust emanating from society at large is absolutely warranted

We're learning three things. Firstly: We can do without politicians and supervisory board members who see, hear and feel no evil.

Secondly: Business leaders who think everything is morally legit just because it’s legally sound aren't doing their companies any favors. David Hume knew: “The rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.”

And thirdly: The wave of disgust emanating from society at large isn't disproportionate, but absolutely warranted. We don't need to retract for feeling something where others have nothing but the calloused remains of their moral nerve. The remorse they’re feigning is little more than phantom limb pain, a kind of ethical tingling – but one that’s systemically relevant.

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