The and their working practises should not have

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, which breaks this requirement down into
sections allowing members to improve aspects of their behaviour more
successfully, 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 will be 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 role of the
engineer would then be analysed , focusing on the personal and wider reaching consequences
of his actions and how ethically he might have dealt with the situation using
both Deontology and utilitarianism approaches before concluded a course of
action which would have enabled themselves to have successfully adhered to the
Royal Academy of Engineering’s statement of ethics.

In 1971 the American automotive
industry was trying to compete with imports from Japan. Sales of the cheaper,
smaller family vehicles had begun to affect the large American companies
resulting in the announcement of the Ford Pinto. Directly aimed at competing
with the Japanese Ford managed to reduce the price by compressing the ‘draft
board to showroom time’5 from three and a half years
down to two. This reduction meant a competitive price however it also resulted
in the compression and compromise of important design procedures to meet production
targets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated in
1972 all vehicles must withstand a rear end impact at 20mph with no fuel
leakage with the speed rising to 30mph in 19736. All 20 Pinto prototypes
failed an impact at 20mph as the fuel tank was located behind the rear bumper.
The decision was taken by Ford not to delay its release and redesign the car
but to have the car in showrooms by 1971, avoiding the NHTSA laws. Between 1971
and 1978 when a rupture proof tank was introduced, 23 deaths official fire
related deaths were caused by rear collisions on Ford Pintos however some
critics place the number as high as 5005. 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, there are inputs
promoting a nations industry. Sometimes laws are introduced to protect a
nations industry and to ensure its competiveness and success sometimes at the
expense of the consumer. Laws can also be outdated and need to adapt to an
evolving world. Technology in the automotive industry is constantly changing
with faster more powerful vehicles becoming common place, safety laws need to
evolve, which was apparent by the 1972 and 1973 changes. Comparatively the
Respect for life remains a constant, with the potential for each product to be
designed to maximise public safety. The reason why this does not occur and why
there is capitalism. In the 1970’s it would have been possible to design a far
safer car than the pinto but at a higher cost, affecting the businesses profit
margins and its competitiveness. Ethically Ford should have placed the safety
of the consumer higher than its profit margins however as there was no law in
1971 forcing them to do so they did not which shows unethical management of the
situation. They may have reasoned that an increase in cost would have caused
job losses and their actions were in the best interests of their employees
however in 1971 Ford was one of the largest car manufacture in the world and
could have survived the financial repercussions. Similarly, their management of
the situation was not in their employed engineer’s best interests.

Ford had not thought about the impact
of their decision on their project engineer’s ethical obligation to their profession
placing the engineers in an ethical dilemma. They had followed the correct
steps; they had identified the issue, raised it and provided a solution which
had been ignored. They now know there design may cause the deaths of innocent
people. Any action on their part such as objection, industrial action of
whistleblowing8 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 the accidents, 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. As a company placing their engineering team in that
dilemma by their actions is unethical.

One method of helping identify
the ethical way to act is Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, one of the founders
of the principle described it as ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend
to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’9 Utilitarianism is a form of
consequentialism10 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 and therefor a human life was calculated at $11
per car5. Design engineers privy to
this information would have known that their design was potentially going to
kill its driver, 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 is viewed by many as focusing on the cold hard
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)11. Ford could argue the success
of the company is good and as the right of the cost of the redesign would not
directly promote this in the short term then they acted correctly. However when
analysing this in terms of the consumer it is clear that a redesign would be
the correct action, which would also achieve the same outcome that Ford desired
but in the longer term.

This view of Fords interpretation
is boarding on Hedonism12, however to truly apply
utilitarianism everyone’s pleasure must be taken into account including
customers and the engineers. 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
factors13. 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?’14 Only if the answer to
both questions is yes can you proceed with the action. Upon application of both
these questions to the case study Ford would fail on the latter question as
their actions far from respecting human beings goals (the customer) they are
being used for Fords own purpose, to be the primary producer 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 worth. 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 humans15. In this aspect as well
the actions of Ford are rejected seeing as they prized $11 a car more than a
human life, thus placing a very low value on a life.  

An engineer would be able to use
both reasoning’s to understand if a decision was ethical as utilitarianism
would help understand the consequences either way of a decision whilst Kantian
ethics would help check an outcome against a moral based criterion thus
improving his ability to identify the situation. Once the engineer’s ethical
stance is clearly identified and it differs from the law, which in this case
has not gone far enough to secure the safety of the consumer, it is apparent
the law need extending to keep its relevance. This action was occurring however
it would be long to affect the Pinto case study. The importance to note is that
the production of the same vehicle 1 year apart (without any change in external
factors) has no bearing on whether it is safe or no safe. It cannot change 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 flaw
from the beginning and doing nothing to improve this is unethical. Instead of
scraping out of date laws the emphasis is on the company to ensure its products
are safe from the start 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 engineer regarding
the Pinto Case study was placed in an ethical dilemma by Ford as they have
followed all the correct steps yet the company has placed profits above the
safety of the public ignoring the fact a solution had been identified and would
have saved lives. While some may argue their cost analysis approach is
utilitarian that is not the case as it does not consider everyone’s pleasure
and happiness just their companies growth. Using both the Utilitarian approach
and Kantian theory an engineer placed I this situation can identify an ethical
course of action in the short term and attempt to change the ethos of the
company from within causing long term change. 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 up to date with current technology. This was shown to
be the case for the Pinto hence the change in standards. Every engineer’s
ethics are different however following the methods outlined would help them
advance their profession whilst promoting excellence.