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, which breaks this requirement down intosections allowing members to improve aspects of their behaviour moresuccessfully, which in turn helps fulfil organisations aim.
As part of one ofthese sections an engineer should have ‘Respect for Life and Law’ by which theyshould ‘Hold paramount the health and safety of others and draw attention tohazards’ whilst ‘ensuring work is lawful and justified’ while consideringpublished standards and guidelines 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 conflict occurredfor the Ford engineers working on the Pinto project who must respect the lawbut also had to respect human life which the law did not protect.This conflict will be analysed indirect application to the Ford Pinto case study, with the positions of Law andLife identified alongside the causes why the conflict occurred. The role of theengineer would then be analysed , focusing on the personal and wider reaching consequencesof his actions and how ethically he might have dealt with the situation usingboth Deontology and utilitarianism approaches before concluded a course ofaction which would have enabled themselves to have successfully adhered to theRoyal Academy of Engineering’s statement of ethics.In 1971 the American automotiveindustry was trying to compete with imports from Japan.
Sales of the cheaper,smaller family vehicles had begun to affect the large American companiesresulting in the announcement of the Ford Pinto. Directly aimed at competingwith the Japanese Ford managed to reduce the price by compressing the ‘draftboard to showroom time’5 from three and a half yearsdown to two. This reduction meant a competitive price however it also resultedin the compression and compromise of important design procedures to meet productiontargets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated in1972 all vehicles must withstand a rear end impact at 20mph with no fuelleakage with the speed rising to 30mph in 19736.
All 20 Pinto prototypesfailed 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 carbut to have the car in showrooms by 1971, avoiding the NHTSA laws. Between 1971and 1978 when a rupture proof tank was introduced, 23 deaths official firerelated deaths were caused by rear collisions on Ford Pintos however somecritics place the number as high as 5005. Ford engineers believe thathad the car been redesigned to place the petrol tank over the axel 95% of thedeaths 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, there are inputspromoting a nations industry.
Sometimes laws are introduced to protect anations industry and to ensure its competiveness and success sometimes at theexpense of the consumer. Laws can also be outdated and need to adapt to anevolving world. Technology in the automotive industry is constantly changingwith faster more powerful vehicles becoming common place, safety laws need toevolve, which was apparent by the 1972 and 1973 changes. Comparatively theRespect for life remains a constant, with the potential for each product to bedesigned to maximise public safety. The reason why this does not occur and whythere is capitalism. In the 1970’s it would have been possible to design a farsafer car than the pinto but at a higher cost, affecting the businesses profitmargins and its competitiveness.
Ethically Ford should have placed the safetyof the consumer higher than its profit margins however as there was no law in1971 forcing them to do so they did not which shows unethical management of thesituation. They may have reasoned that an increase in cost would have causedjob losses and their actions were in the best interests of their employeeshowever in 1971 Ford was one of the largest car manufacture in the world andcould have survived the financial repercussions. Similarly, their management ofthe situation was not in their employed engineer’s best interests. Ford had not thought about the impactof their decision on their project engineer’s ethical obligation to their professionplacing the engineers in an ethical dilemma. They had followed the correctsteps; they had identified the issue, raised it and provided a solution whichhad been ignored.
They now know there design may cause the deaths of innocentpeople. Any action on their part such as objection, industrial action ofwhistleblowing8 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 the accidents, whichwould 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. As a company placing their engineering team in thatdilemma by their actions is unethical. One method of helping identifythe ethical way to act is Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, one of the foundersof the principle described it as ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tendto promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
‘9 Utilitarianism is a form ofconsequentialism10 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 the smallernumber which was to continue with the current design. When spread out over eachcar, the price of the redesign and therefor a human life was calculated at $11per car5. Design engineers privy tothis information would have known that their design was potentially going tokill its driver, and despite being able to prevent it, that the company theywere working for had deemed that $11 per car was not viable.
Due to its application tomonetary matters Utilitarianism is viewed by many as focusing on the cold hardnumbers and facts 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)11. Ford could argue the successof the company is good and as the right of the cost of the redesign would notdirectly promote this in the short term then they acted correctly. However whenanalysing this in terms of the consumer it is clear that a redesign would bethe correct action, which would also achieve the same outcome that Ford desiredbut in the longer term. This view of Fords interpretationis boarding on Hedonism12, however to truly applyutilitarianism everyone’s pleasure must be taken into account includingcustomers and the engineers. Critics argue that other factors alongsidepleasure are just as important such as virtue and knowledge but it is importantto understand that ‘pleasure’ covers both the worldly pleasure that issynonymous but also the higher more intellectual pleasures which cover suchfactors13. 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 canbe applied 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?’14 Only if the answer toboth questions is yes can you proceed with the action.
Upon application of boththese questions to the case study Ford would fail on the latter question astheir actions far from respecting human beings goals (the customer) they arebeing used for Fords own purpose, to be the primary producer of small familyvehicles. Similarly, with such a glaringdesign flaw it is a certainty that it was not a unanimous decision of everyoneinvolved to continue with the current design. Kantian ethics is also underlinedby the fact every human has intrinsic worth. This is reasoned by the fact thatwithout human beings nothing would be valued, everything would inanimatetherefore worth must come from somewhere and it must be from humans15. In this aspect as wellthe actions of Ford are rejected seeing as they prized $11 a car more than ahuman life, thus placing a very low value on a life. An engineer would be able to useboth reasoning’s to understand if a decision was ethical as utilitarianismwould help understand the consequences either way of a decision whilst Kantianethics would help check an outcome against a moral based criterion thusimproving his ability to identify the situation.
Once the engineer’s ethicalstance is clearly identified and it differs from the law, which in this casehas not gone far enough to secure the safety of the consumer, it is apparentthe law need extending to keep its relevance. This action was occurring howeverit would be long to affect the Pinto case study. The importance to note is thatthe production of the same vehicle 1 year apart (without any change in externalfactors) has no bearing on whether it is safe or no safe.
It cannot change oversuch a short time period. New technology may supersede it allowing for improvementsand errors may be found in service but producing a vehicle with a known flawfrom the beginning and doing nothing to improve this is unethical. Instead ofscraping out of date laws the emphasis is on the company to ensure its productsare safe from the start and that attempts are made to improve such standardswhere possible. It is the engineer’s responsibility to identify this to theircompany and to improve working standards from the inside so that mistakes arenot repeated in the future.
It is important that the change comes from withinrather than from an external force, the NHTSA.To Conclude the engineer regardingthe Pinto Case study was placed in an ethical dilemma by Ford as they havefollowed all the correct steps yet the company has placed profits above thesafety of the public ignoring the fact a solution had been identified and wouldhave saved lives. While some may argue their cost analysis approach isutilitarian that is not the case as it does not consider everyone’s pleasureand happiness just their companies growth. Using both the Utilitarian approachand Kantian theory an engineer placed I this situation can identify an ethicalcourse of action in the short term and attempt to change the ethos of thecompany from within causing long term change. 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 up to date with current technology. This was shown tobe the case for the Pinto hence the change in standards.
Every engineer’sethics are different however following the methods outlined would help themadvance their profession whilst promoting excellence.