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The Ford Pinto Case: A Study in Applied Ethics, Business and Technology

by Douglas Birsch and John H. Fielder, Eds., 1994, State University of New York Press, Albany, 312 p., softcover.

The Pinto was a small car that Ford manufactured during 1971-1980. The unsafe gas tank design and a delayed change was the subject of huge controversy. At one point Ford found itself in a criminal trial, accused in the wrongful death of three young women.

This book recounts the events from several perspectives. Some people believe the case was a prime example of corporate greed and disregard for customers' welfare. To others, this is an example of what happens when media attention magnifies a small problem beyond reason.

There are many aspects of the Pinto case that should interest decision makers:

- Safety is defined as "of acceptable risk."

- Of most controversy is Chapter 8, "Cost-Benefit Analysis: An Ethical Critique," written by Steven Kelman. He summarizes the benefits of cost-benefit analysis, then proceeds to discredit the approach with philosophical arguments. It makes interesting reading, and Kelman makes some thoughtful points. Fortunately, the book's editors provided space, Chapter 9, for several contributors to come to the defense of cost-benefit analysis.

- Most damaging to Ford, perhaps, was not that they had done a cost-benefits analysis for a problem involving human lives. Where they erred, many feel (including me), is that they used a value for human life that was too low. Ford had an internal memorandum where the value of a human life was approximately $200,000. This was influenced, perhaps by a 1972 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report which used a human life value of $200,725. Most of this value was based upon future productivity (or earnings potential) losses.

The books attempts to be objective in presenting all sides of the issues. It provokes emotion, deep thought and debate.

--John Schuyler, August 1996