Last Updated 14 Nov 2022

A Philosophical Analysis of the American Scheme of Ford Motors

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Today American cars have a reputation for poor reliability compared to foreign imported cars. This, however, was not always the case. Scoffs of superiority were made at the mention of foreign cars, that is until the late 1960s. Foreign cars began to take over the market place with their more affordable options. This sparked the necessity for such designs as the Ford Pinto model. A car made to compete with the competitive pricing of the foreign imports, however, this came at a cost to the reliability. Weighing no more than 2,000 lbs. and costing no more than $2,000, the Ford Pinto fit this niche. Affordable pricing, as it turns out, comes at a cost in quality.

The Pinto did not meet set safety guidelines by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). When crash tested at only 20 mph, every prototype of the Pinto resulted in a ruptured gas tank and dangerous leaks, the Pinto itself was no exception. These leaks caused explosions to occur on minor impacts even at low speeds. Ford was faced with a dilemma, delay production by a year to fix these issues, or continue forward with the existing dangerous design? Ford choose the latter and went Ford with production of the original design of the Pinto. This resulted in hundreds of crashes and subsequent explosions leading to the death of upwards of 180 people. Their rationale? Based mainly on a cost-benefit reasoning process. The cost of making the necessary safety adjustments was estimated to be $11 per vehicle (12.5 million).

Utilizing data produced by NHTSA, the cost of each person's death (in regards to society) was estimated to be around $200,000. Crunching the numbers, this meant a total of $137.5 million was needed to be spent by Ford in order to save society $49.5 million. The aforementioned case was brought to court several times by those who were harmed by the vehicle and Ford's gross negligence. Ford claims that fire related deaths tallied up only to 23 while others say the number is closer to 500. Ford engineers made a sworn testimony that 95% of the fatalities would have been avoided had Ford placed the fuel tank over the axle, as in previous model designs. Over 50 lawsuits were taken against Ford, ending with the jury finding Ford guilty in cases involving read-end collisions. While also finding them not guilty in other cases for criminal homicide, meaning Ford must have shown clear disregard of the harm from their actions that clearly deviated from safety standards.

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This issue of expense to the motor company is an issue that persists moving forward. Are such actions based on monetary claims immoral? From the perspective of Kant and his Categorical Imperatives as well as Mill and his Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP) will this question be answered. Kant's Categorical Imperatives consist of three methodologies for determination of an action as moral or immoral. The first imperative states: act according to laws of universality, that is an action that applies across all time to all people and does not vary, similar to the golden rule. The second imperative states: act so that you treat humanity as an end and not simply a means, that is respect the originating source of lawfulness. Another way of putting this is to respect other people's first imperative that they create for themselves.

The third and final imperative states: act so that all human beings are legislators of universal law, that is universal laws developed in the first imperative must not infringe those freedoms set forth by the second imperative. In summary, Kant's moral philosophy can be described as deontological or duty based. Each person has certain duties that they are responsible for and must carry out. His Categorical Imperatives are the three most important and fundamental. Transforming these Categorical Imperatives into duties as they pertain to the Ford Pinto case we can develop an idea of how Kant would judge the situation in terms of morality. Kant's first imperative requires that the Ford Motor company treat others as they would want to be treated. The Executives and Engineers themselves are responsible for creating a vehicle that they would feel safe and confident in driving.

Asking this of the company does not seem outlandish and is a duty any company owes their clientele when creating a product. However, they also have a duty to their stack holders to generate money from the company and therefore for the stack holders. These duties are conflicting here when only considering the first imperative. They have the desire to generate money as they would also expect any other company to have the intent of doing, but at the same time they must create a safe product for their customers as they would expect of other companies. In this scenario, Ford choose to pursue money over safety and with Kant's first imperative and only the first imperative in consideration, it cannot be judge immoral within Kant's eyes. How then can one of Kant's key points in terms of his moral theory have a flagrant disregard for human life?

The answer is that all of Kant's three imperatives must be satisfied insofar as something is morally right. Think of a Venn Diagram, each imperative is its own circle with overlaps occurring between them. Only in the portion where all three imperatives, or in this case circles, overlap can things be judged to be morally right. Moving onwards to Kant's second imperative, not utilizing humanity as a means to an end, we can search to find greater overlap. However, we are rather unsuccessful in this pursuit. Ford clearly utilizes others as a means to accomplish their own agenda. Specifically, they disregard their duty to society concerning human safety and life as a means of accomplishing their duty to their stack holders of making money. Moreover, to say that no overlap between these duties exists is foolish when their foreign counterparts and competitors had done it prior and Ford too could have done it but choose to push forward with an accelerated time table of production. Continuing the search for overlap and looking towards Kant's third imperative, respect for the universal laws developed by others and not infringing on them, some moral salvation can be found for Ford.

Ford did not directly infringe on the imperatives of others. They did not at any point force people to buy, operate, and crash their Pinto model. A counter argument can be made that they did indirectly infringe on the imperatives of others, nevertheless. Whereas, Ford did not force others to buy the Pinto, they allowed them to knowing fully the possible defects with the car. Ford's actions of producing the Pinot and allowing people to buy with potential deathly injury occurring lets their duty to the stack holders interfere with Ford's duty to their customers. With the guidelines and safety standards set out by the NHSTA, Ford has a duty to their customers to meet standards. The customer, with full trust and faith in Ford carrying out their duty to them, should be confident that these standards are met.

This negligence of duty on the part of Ford caused people's lives to be lost and their duties to others to go unfulfilled. Kant would view Ford as acting immoral due to their lack of duty to their customers which resulted in those who died to not be able to complete their duties and deviation from his three imperatives. Next, begins the analysis of Ford's actions through the eyes of John Stewart Mill and his Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP). The GHP is based on the premise that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. This allows no action to have intrinsic value. Thus, such actions like murder cannot be intrinsically wrong. As this pertains to Ford and the Pinto, while the actions of Ford prompted happiness within the company and their stack holders, they did not promote happiness within their clientele. Moreover, their actions in themselves have no intrinsic wrongness to them but in comparison to the reverse of happiness their actions caused, they can be judged as wrong in the eyes of Mills. Ford's actions took away happiness from a large multitude of people and cannot be justified.

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