Ethical Decisions in the Ford Pinto Case

Introduction In 1972 the national highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) put a price on life – $200 725 (adjusted for inflation). The Ford Motor Company used this data along with other statistical studies to determine the cost benefit of improving the safety of the Ford Pinto compared to the cost of loss of life. It was determined that the cost of the suggested improvements outweighed their benefits. This essay aims to address whether cost-benefit analysis is a legitimate tool and what role, if any, it should play in moral deliberation, especially when placing a monetary value on a human life.

It also questions what responsibilities Ford had to its customers and what moral rights were in operation, as well as whether it would have made a difference if Ford customers knew about the decision. Discussion Cost-Benefit Analysis, is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project for two purposes; firstly to determine if it is a sound investment (justification/feasibility and secondly, to see how it compares with alternate projects (ranking/priority assignment).

It works by first defining the project and any alternatives; then identifying, measuring, and valuing the benefits and costs of each. (Benefit-cost analysis, 2007) The variables employed in Fords cost-benefit analysis were; the cost of making the safety changes to millions of vehicles, the statistics quoting quantity of deaths, injuries and vehicle damage , and lastly and most controversially, the total per fatality quoted by the NHTSA, being $200,275. The latter value is what is being questioned. What is the cost of a life?

Can one even put a cost on a life? The Ford motor company factored the cost of life into the decision that safety improvements outweighed their benefits. Based on the above definition, however, cost benefit analysis was a legitimate tool, but for financial decisions only. If Ford had taken a utilitarian approach to the cost benefit analysis a better moral decision might have been made. Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions (Shaw, 2009).

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – Spock It has also been defined as; firstly, the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority, and secondly, the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. (dictionary. com) Fords actions could be viewed as morally correct if argued that they benefited more people by offering cheap vehicle and increasing shareholders profits, than the few people that were killed or injured.

But arguing that producing the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions(Shaw, 2009) Fords decision was morally wrong because the benefits and resulting happiness of people benefitting by their decision to sell precariously unsafe vehicles would pale in comparison to the unhappiness caused by a death. As was the case, many shareholders benefitted to the detriment of a few people. So the central question is; what is the value of a human life and can it be measured extrinsically as used in the analysis.

Ford met their obligation to shareholders by focussing only on financial variables, but failed in its responsibility to customers in two ways; they neglected to factor in to their analysis the intrinsic value of human life and the impact to the many of their decisions, they also failed to inform customers of the nature of the defect which would most certainly have impacted consumer behaviour. The consumer's right to life as well as their right to making informed decisions were undermined.

If Ford had not neglected to inform their customers of the defect and thus allowed the customers to make informed decisions with regards to their products, the risk associated with the defect would have passed from Ford to the customer. Had the consumer been correctly informed, they would become responsible for any results stemming from the decision to purchase the vehicle, regardless of whether the cost savings had been passed on to them or not. Conclusion Cost-benefit analysis is a legitimate financial tool. As a tool for morality it is useful but flawed as a measure of assigning a value to human life and suffering.

Ford had a responsibility to it customers to protect their interests or share information with them to protect their own (the consumers) interests, particularly the most important interest; their right to life. It would not have made a moral difference if Ford had passed the savings onto their consumers, as they would have encroached on their customer right to life and their right to make an informed decision. References Carr, A. Z. (1968). Is business bluffing ethical? [Article]. Harvard Business Review, 46(1), 143-153. Benefit-cost analysis. (2007).


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