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Utilitarian Analysis of the Pinto Case

Safety features of cars are good subjects of ethical inquiry because they involve a person’s valuation of human life. Ford Motor Company has always been in the middle of discussions regarding car safety, beginning in mid-1960s, when the corporation’s president, Arjay Miller, figured in a car accident which made him witness to the susceptibility to fire of Ford cars (Dowie, 1977). He thus vowed to passionately pursue the development of safety mechanisms for Ford cars.

Unfortunately, a Ford Pinto car figured in a car accident seven years thereafter, which led to the death of a woman and very severe injuries in a thirteen-year-old boy (Dowie, 1977). The disaster involving the Ford Pinto would, at first sight, appear to be far from any ethical considerations. However, the facts and events that led to the car accident brings to fore certain opportunities for ethical deliberation. The Ford Pinto was designed, developed and manufactured at a time when competition and pressure were intense from Volkswagen and other Japanese companies for a dominant share in the market for small cars (Wills, et al.

). To rise to the challenge, Ford rushed the production of its Pinto model. Thus, instead of taking the usual forty-three months in producing the car, Ford finished production of the Pinto in just twenty five. The deliberate haste with which Ford pushed production of the car casts a shadow on the adoption of appropriate procedures in production (Wills, et al. ). Another relevant fact pointing to responsibility in the car accident was the discovery made by the Ford engineers that there was a major flaw in the car’s design.

They discovered that the Pinto’s fuel system is highly susceptible to rupturing, which could lead to explosion (Wills, et al. ). Despite this, Ford proceeded to manufacture the cars because they were already in the assembly line and they wanted to meet the non-negotiable specifications set by its designer, Iacocca. Thus, Ford threw caution to the wind and went ahead, just to beat competition (Wills, et al. ). The Ford Pinto case could be analyzed by applying the utilitarian principle in the various stages of its development where the opportunity for moral deliberation presented itself.

Utilitarianism holds that utility is the foundation of morals. Utilitarianism proposes the “Greatest Happiness Principle” as the determinant of the morality of an action or decision (Kemerling, 2002). Under this principle, human action shall be judged according to its tendency to promote happiness or pain. Thus, an action that tends to promote happiness to the greatest number shall be considered morally right. Conversely, an action shall be considered morally wrong if it tends to promote the opposite of happiness, which is pain (Mill,1863).

Applying this principle in the given scenario, it could be concluded that Ford did not comply with the utilitarian principle of morality in speeding up the production of the Ford Pinto for the selfish reason of increasing corporate sales. Increased sales and profit would only mean happiness to the company but it could mean death or serious injuries to others. Ford likewise failed to apply the “Greatest Happiness Principle” when it disregarded the discovery of its engineers regarding the susceptibility of the car’s fuel system to rupture, when it could have ordered the replacement of such system by another, safer alternative.

The company’s action at this point clearly disregarded the happiness of the users or buyers of the car, who would be placed in danger’s way. The company’s actions showed that it was concerned with the promotion of happiness of only a few people, namely, the company and its officials and stockholders. However, it completely did not consider the pain that would be inflicted on the poor people who believed in the quality of Ford’s cars and who are in danger of facing death or physical injuries in case they figure in a car accident.


Dowie, M. (1977). Pinto Madness. Retrieved April 1, 2007, from http://www. motherjones. com/news/feature/1977/09/dowie. html Kemerling, G. Utilitarianism. (2002). Retrieved November 27, 2006, from http://www. philosophypages. com/hy/5q. htm Mill, J. S. (1863). Utilitarianism. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from http://www. utilitarianism. com/mill2. htm Wills, S. , Swanson, L. , Satchi, L. , & Thompson, K. Design Defects of the Ford Pinto Gas Tank. Retrieved April 1, 2007, from http://www. fordpinto. com/blowup. htm

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