The time'[5] from three and a half years

The Royal Academy of Engineers
was founded in 19761 with the express purpose to
‘advance and promote excellence in engineering.’1 To ensure that the quality of
being excellent is achieved for the organisation it is critical to nurture the
importance of this trait within all its members. To ensure the same standard is
adhered to, a statement of ethics, breaking this requirement down into sections
allows members to successfully improve aspects of their behaviour, which in
turn helps fulfil organisations aim. As part of one of these sections an
engineer should have ‘Respect for Life and Law’ by which they should ‘Hold paramount
the health and safety of others and draw attention to hazards’ whilst ‘ensuring
work is lawful and justified’ while ‘considering published standards and
guidelines and the wider public interest.’2 This in most situations makes
does not pose conflict, an engineer should ensure all their work meets the
required lawful standards and their working practises should not have a
negative impact on life, in fact it should help benefit it. In some cases,
however laws have been left to become irrelevant, as new technologies leave
them obsolete or out of date3, or even lobby groups4 allow private interests to
prevail over those of the public. When this occurs a conflict of interest
develops.  Such a direct conflict
occurred for the Ford engineers working on the Pinto project who must respect
the law but also had to respect human life which the law did not protect.

This conflict is analysed in
direct application to the Ford Pinto case study, with the positions of law and life
identified alongside the causes why the conflict occurred. The focus of the
analysis then moves to the engineer, focusing on the personal and wider
reaching consequences of their actions and how ethically they might have dealt
with the situation using both Kantian and Utilitarianism approaches. Conclusions
have then been made and a course of action that enabled themselves to have
successfully adhered to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s statement of ethics
is proposed.

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In 1971 the American automotive
industry was under threat from Japanese imports. Ford had suffered a decline in
sales of cheaper, smaller family vehicles and proposed the Ford Pinto to regain
its market segment. Aimed at competing with the Japanese manufacturers Ford reduced
the purchase price by compressing the ‘draft board to showroom time’5 from three and a half years
down to two. Although this meant the Pinto was competitive, it resulted in the
compression and compromise of important design procedures potentially to
affecting the final product. In 1972 the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA) stated all vehicles must withstand a rear end impact at
20mph with no fuel leakage with the speed rising to 30mph in 19736. Due to the design flaw of
locating the fuel tank behind the rear axle, all 20 prototypes failed on impact
at 20mph. Ford decided not to postpone its release and improve the design the
car but avoid the safety laws by selling the car in 1971. From 1971 to 1978 (when
a rupture proof tank was introduced) Rear collisions resulted in 23 official  fire related deaths however critics place the
number as high as 5005. When Interviewed Ford
engineers believe that had the car been redesigned to place the petrol tank
over the axel 95% of the deaths would have been avoided5.


Ethics and legality are two
separate entities and must be identified as such7. For the most case the two
are closely linked however as in such cases they do differ. Law has other
influences other than the entities of morality and ethics, sometimes national
interests specifically the desire for a competitive and successful industry
sometimes direct laws at the expense of the consumer. Laws can also become
outdated and require adaptation to an ever-evolving world. One evolution is
technology in the automotive industry, constant improvement has allowed faster
and more powerful cars to become common. Safety laws need to adapt to remain
relevant, as seen by the 1972 and 1973 changes. Comparatively the respect for life
remains a constant, every product produce has the capability of maximising
public safety at the expense of other requirements. The reason why this does
not occur is capitalism. In the 1970’s it would have been possible to design a
far safer car than the pinto but the higher cost would have affected businesses
profit margins and therefore competitiveness.

Ethically Ford should have placed
the safety of the consumer higher than its profit margins however as of then
there were no legal ramifications, they chose not to, demonstrating unethical
management. Ford may have reasoned that an increase in cost would have threatened
job security and that their actions were in the best interests of their
employees. In 1971 Ford was the third largest company in the USA8 and could have absorbed potential
financial repercussions. Similarly, their decision was not in their engineer’s
best interests.

Ford had not identified the
impact of their decision on their engineer’s ethical obligation to their profession,
placing the engineers in an ethical dilemma. Engineers had followed the correct
procedure by identifying and raising the issue whilst providing a suitable
solution which was ignored. Their unsafe design has been implemented which they
know may cause the deaths of innocent people. Any action on their part such as
objection, industrial action or whistleblowing9 may have resulted in
disciplinary action, dismissal and damage to their professional reputation
harming them and their dependents financially and mentally. However, if no
action 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 Kantian
theory. Damage to their professional reputation may also incur if the company
has need of a scapegoat. By placing their engineers in this dilemma Fords
actions are completely unethical.

One method of helping identify
the ethical way to act is Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, one of its founders
described it as ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote
happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’10 Utilitarianism is a form of
consequentialism11 where an actions consequence is
weighed up and used to identify the correct outcome. It could be argued that in
a purely monetary sense, Fords actions were Utilitarian. Fords actions were
based on cost analysis, using collected data they predicted the cost they would
incur from death, injury and damage pay-outs and directly compared it to the
known cost of redesigning the petrol tank layout. They then selected the
smaller number which was to continue with the current design. When spread out
over each car, the price of the redesign (their price of a human life) was
calculated at $115. Engineers privy to this
would 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 for
had deemed that $11 per car was not viable.

Due to its application to
monetary matters Utilitarianism has the reputation of focusing on numbers and
facts rather than its true application of promoting happiness.  Consequentialists believe that a specific
action is right (moral rightness) only when it helps improve the good
(something worth pursuing)12. Ford could argue the success
of the company is good and they acted correctly as the cost of the redesign
would not directly promote this in the short term. However, when analysing this
in terms of the consumer it is clear that a redesign (which would have helped
Fords goal long term) would have been the correct action.

This view of Fords interpretation
is bordering on Hedonism13, however to truly apply
utilitarianism everyone’s pleasure must be taken into account including
customers and the engineers14. Critics argue that other
factors alongside pleasure are just as important such as virtue and knowledge
but it is important to understand that ‘pleasure’ covers both the worldly
pleasure that is synonymous but also the higher more intellectual pleasures
which cover such factors15. Using this theory the
engineer can segment the effects of his actions, proactive and non pro-active
and help to understand the repercussions of each to arrive at a concluding
course of action.

An alternative theory which can be
applied is Kantian ethics. Developed by Immanuel Kant this differed from
utilitarianism by removing the debating nature of consequences. Kant believed
that specific actions (including lying) were completely prohibited despite the
fact in doing so the results may have a more favourable outcome. This is
applied via two questions, ‘Can I rationally
will that everyone act
as I propose to act?’ and Does my action respect the goals of human beings
rather than merely using them for my own purposes?’16 Only if the answer to
both questions is yes can you proceed with the action17. Upon application of
these questions to the case study, Ford would fail as their actions far from
respecting the goals of human beings (the customer) they are solely for Fords
own purpose, to regain their market segment of small family vehicles.  Similarly, with such a glaring design flaw it
is a certainty that it was not a unanimous decision of everyone involved to
continue with the current design. Kantian ethics is also underlined by the fact
every human has intrinsic worth18. This is reasoned by the
fact that without human beings nothing would be valued, everything would
inanimate therefore worth must come from somewhere and it must be from humans17. Using this theory Fords
actions are rejected seeing as they prized $11 a car more than a human life, thus
placing a very low value on its customers life.  

An engineer would be able to use
both principles to identify if a decision was ethical. Utilitarianism would
help understand the consequences either way of a decision whilst Kantian ethics
would help check an outcome against a moral based criterion allowing the
engineer to gauge the ethicalness to which he can then compare legality. Once
their 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 apparent
the law needs adapting to maintain its relevance.

The law was being updated however
its timeline meant the Pinto would not be affected. It is important to note
that the production of the same vehicle 1 year apart (without major
technological change in external factors) has no bearing on its safety. It
cannot become unsafe over such a short time period. New technology may
supersede it allowing for improvements and errors may be found in service but
producing a vehicle with a known safety flaw and not attempting to rectify it is
unethical. Instead of avoiding inadequate laws (two scheduled improvements in
two years) the emphasis is on Ford to ensure its products are safe from the day
of purchase and that attempts are made to improve such standards where
possible. It is the engineer’s responsibility to identify this to their company
and to improve working standards from the inside so that mistakes are not
repeated in the future. It is important that the change comes from within
rather than from an external force, the NHTSA.

To Conclude the engineers
involved in the Pinto Case study were placed in an ethical dilemma by Ford as
they had followed all the correct design steps yet the company had placed
profit above the safety of the public, ignoring a viable solution had been
identified and would have saved lives. While some may argue their cost analysis
approach was utilitarian that is not the case as it did not consider everyone’s
pleasure and happiness just their companies growth. Using both the Utilitarian
approach and Kantian theory an engineer placed in this situation could have
identified an ethical course of action in the short term whilst prompting long
term change of the company’s ethos from within. If there is a conflict between
respect for law and life, then it is clear the law needs to be reviewed to
ensure that it is still relevant to current technology. This was shown to be
the case for the Pinto hence the several changes in standards over the
proceeding years. Every engineer’s ethics are different however following the
methods outlined would help them advance excellence in their profession whilst
promoting both respect for law and life.


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