The Royal Academy of Engineerswas founded in 19761 with the express purpose to’advance and promote excellence in engineering.’1 To ensure that the quality ofbeing excellent is achieved for the organisation it is critical to nurture theimportance of this trait within all its members.
To ensure the same standard isadhered to, a statement of ethics, breaking this requirement down into sectionsallows members to successfully improve aspects of their behaviour, which inturn helps fulfil organisations aim. As part of one of these sections anengineer should have ‘Respect for Life and Law’ by which they should ‘Hold paramountthe health and safety of others and draw attention to hazards’ whilst ‘ensuringwork is lawful and justified’ while ‘considering published standards andguidelines and the wider public interest.’2 This in most situations makesdoes not pose conflict, an engineer should ensure all their work meets therequired lawful standards and their working practises should not have anegative impact on life, in fact it should help benefit it. In some cases,however laws have been left to become irrelevant, as new technologies leavethem obsolete or out of date3, or even lobby groups4 allow private interests toprevail over those of the public. When this occurs a conflict of interestdevelops. Such a direct conflictoccurred for the Ford engineers working on the Pinto project who must respectthe law but also had to respect human life which the law did not protect.This conflict is analysed indirect application to the Ford Pinto case study, with the positions of law and lifeidentified alongside the causes why the conflict occurred.
The focus of theanalysis then moves to the engineer, focusing on the personal and widerreaching consequences of their actions and how ethically they might have dealtwith the situation using both Kantian and Utilitarianism approaches. Conclusionshave then been made and a course of action that enabled themselves to havesuccessfully adhered to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s statement of ethicsis proposed.In 1971 the American automotiveindustry was under threat from Japanese imports. Ford had suffered a decline insales of cheaper, smaller family vehicles and proposed the Ford Pinto to regainits market segment. Aimed at competing with the Japanese manufacturers Ford reducedthe purchase price by compressing the ‘draft board to showroom time’5 from three and a half yearsdown to two. Although this meant the Pinto was competitive, it resulted in thecompression and compromise of important design procedures potentially toaffecting the final product. In 1972 the National Highway Traffic SafetyAdministration (NHTSA) stated all vehicles must withstand a rear end impact at20mph with no fuel leakage with the speed rising to 30mph in 19736. Due to the design flaw oflocating the fuel tank behind the rear axle, all 20 prototypes failed on impactat 20mph.
Ford decided not to postpone its release and improve the design thecar but avoid the safety laws by selling the car in 1971. From 1971 to 1978 (whena rupture proof tank was introduced) Rear collisions resulted in 23 official fire related deaths however critics place thenumber as high as 5005. When Interviewed Fordengineers believe that had the car been redesigned to place the petrol tankover the axel 95% of the deaths would have been avoided5.
Ethics and legality are twoseparate entities and must be identified as such7. For the most case the twoare closely linked however as in such cases they do differ. Law has otherinfluences other than the entities of morality and ethics, sometimes nationalinterests specifically the desire for a competitive and successful industrysometimes direct laws at the expense of the consumer. Laws can also becomeoutdated and require adaptation to an ever-evolving world.
One evolution istechnology in the automotive industry, constant improvement has allowed fasterand more powerful cars to become common. Safety laws need to adapt to remainrelevant, as seen by the 1972 and 1973 changes. Comparatively the respect for liferemains a constant, every product produce has the capability of maximisingpublic safety at the expense of other requirements. The reason why this doesnot occur is capitalism. In the 1970’s it would have been possible to design afar safer car than the pinto but the higher cost would have affected businessesprofit margins and therefore competitiveness. Ethically Ford should have placedthe safety of the consumer higher than its profit margins however as of thenthere were no legal ramifications, they chose not to, demonstrating unethicalmanagement. Ford may have reasoned that an increase in cost would have threatenedjob security and that their actions were in the best interests of theiremployees.
In 1971 Ford was the third largest company in the USA8 and could have absorbed potentialfinancial repercussions. Similarly, their decision was not in their engineer’sbest interests. Ford had not identified theimpact of their decision on their engineer’s ethical obligation to their profession,placing the engineers in an ethical dilemma. Engineers had followed the correctprocedure by identifying and raising the issue whilst providing a suitablesolution which was ignored. Their unsafe design has been implemented which theyknow may cause the deaths of innocent people.
Any action on their part such asobjection, industrial action or whistleblowing9 may have resulted indisciplinary action, dismissal and damage to their professional reputationharming them and their dependents financially and mentally. However, if noaction was taken then they would be left with the guilt of any fatalities,which would cause mental anguish particularly if they follow the moral based Kantiantheory. Damage to their professional reputation may also incur if the companyhas need of a scapegoat. By placing their engineers in this dilemma Fordsactions are completely unethical. One method of helping identifythe ethical way to act is Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, one of its foundersdescribed it as ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promotehappiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
’10 Utilitarianism is a form ofconsequentialism11 where an actions consequence isweighed up and used to identify the correct outcome. It could be argued that ina purely monetary sense, Fords actions were Utilitarian. Fords actions werebased on cost analysis, using collected data they predicted the cost they wouldincur from death, injury and damage pay-outs and directly compared it to theknown cost of redesigning the petrol tank layout. They then selected thesmaller number which was to continue with the current design. When spread outover each car, the price of the redesign (their price of a human life) wascalculated at $115. Engineers privy to thiswould have known that their design was potentially going to kill its occupants,and despite being able to prevent it, that the company they were working forhad deemed that $11 per car was not viable.
Due to its application tomonetary matters Utilitarianism has the reputation of focusing on numbers andfacts rather than its true application of promoting happiness. Consequentialists believe that a specificaction is right (moral rightness) only when it helps improve the good(something worth pursuing)12. Ford could argue the successof the company is good and they acted correctly as the cost of the redesignwould not directly promote this in the short term. However, when analysing thisin terms of the consumer it is clear that a redesign (which would have helpedFords goal long term) would have been the correct action. This view of Fords interpretationis bordering on Hedonism13, however to truly applyutilitarianism everyone’s pleasure must be taken into account includingcustomers and the engineers14. Critics argue that otherfactors alongside pleasure are just as important such as virtue and knowledgebut it is important to understand that ‘pleasure’ covers both the worldlypleasure that is synonymous but also the higher more intellectual pleasureswhich cover such factors15.
Using this theory theengineer can segment the effects of his actions, proactive and non pro-activeand help to understand the repercussions of each to arrive at a concludingcourse of action.An alternative theory which can beapplied is Kantian ethics. Developed by Immanuel Kant this differed fromutilitarianism by removing the debating nature of consequences. Kant believedthat specific actions (including lying) were completely prohibited despite thefact in doing so the results may have a more favourable outcome. This isapplied via two questions, ‘Can I rationallywill that everyone actas I propose to act?’ and Does my action respect the goals of human beingsrather than merely using them for my own purposes?’16 Only if the answer toboth questions is yes can you proceed with the action17.
Upon application ofthese questions to the case study, Ford would fail as their actions far fromrespecting the goals of human beings (the customer) they are solely for Fordsown purpose, to regain their market segment of small family vehicles. Similarly, with such a glaring design flaw itis a certainty that it was not a unanimous decision of everyone involved tocontinue with the current design. Kantian ethics is also underlined by the factevery human has intrinsic worth18. This is reasoned by thefact that without human beings nothing would be valued, everything wouldinanimate therefore worth must come from somewhere and it must be from humans17. Using this theory Fordsactions are rejected seeing as they prized $11 a car more than a human life, thusplacing a very low value on its customers life. An engineer would be able to useboth principles to identify if a decision was ethical. Utilitarianism wouldhelp understand the consequences either way of a decision whilst Kantian ethicswould help check an outcome against a moral based criterion allowing theengineer to gauge the ethicalness to which he can then compare legality.
Oncetheir ethical stance is clearly identified and if it differs from the law,which for this case did not secure the safety of the consumer, it is apparentthe law needs adapting to maintain its relevance.The law was being updated howeverits timeline meant the Pinto would not be affected. It is important to notethat the production of the same vehicle 1 year apart (without majortechnological change in external factors) has no bearing on its safety.
Itcannot become unsafe over such a short time period. New technology maysupersede it allowing for improvements and errors may be found in service butproducing a vehicle with a known safety flaw and not attempting to rectify it isunethical. Instead of avoiding inadequate laws (two scheduled improvements intwo years) the emphasis is on Ford to ensure its products are safe from the dayof purchase and that attempts are made to improve such standards wherepossible. It is the engineer’s responsibility to identify this to their companyand to improve working standards from the inside so that mistakes are notrepeated in the future. It is important that the change comes from withinrather than from an external force, the NHTSA.
To Conclude the engineersinvolved in the Pinto Case study were placed in an ethical dilemma by Ford asthey had followed all the correct design steps yet the company had placedprofit above the safety of the public, ignoring a viable solution had beenidentified and would have saved lives. While some may argue their cost analysisapproach was utilitarian that is not the case as it did not consider everyone’spleasure and happiness just their companies growth. Using both the Utilitarianapproach and Kantian theory an engineer placed in this situation could haveidentified an ethical course of action in the short term whilst prompting longterm change of the company’s ethos from within. If there is a conflict betweenrespect for law and life, then it is clear the law needs to be reviewed toensure that it is still relevant to current technology. This was shown to bethe case for the Pinto hence the several changes in standards over theproceeding years.
Every engineer’s ethics are different however following themethods outlined would help them advance excellence in their profession whilstpromoting both respect for law and life.