Since my first car was a Ford Pinto, I have always been interested in the Ford Pinto explosions that were caused by a defective gas tank design provides an interesting case study into approaches to ethical decision making. There are three possible approaches to make when making ethical decisions; a consequentialist approach, a deontological approach and a psychological approach. In a consequentialist approach, the decision maker would base their decision by focusing attention on the consequences of their action (Trevino and Nelson, 2005, p. 89). In the deontological approach, the decision maker would base their decision by focusing on what is right or wrong based on common values and rights of individuals and/or groups (p. 91). A decision maker basing their action on a psychological approach may vary their actions based on the level of their cognitive moral development (p. 115).
In the Ford Pinto case, an individual who took a consequentialist approach could easily make the decision which Ford did and produce the car despite the possibility of having the gas tank explode on low speed rear-end collisions. Furthermore, they would likely agree with Ford that the car did not need to be recalled once it was on the market. A decision maker using the consequentialist approach would look at the consequences for the broadest number of individual and groups as possible and make their decision based on doing the least harm and the most amount of good to all. Since the data should that there were no more accidents with the Pinto than with other vehicles and the companies stakeholders would greatly benefit from keeping the costs low and bringing the car to market as fast as possible; they easily could have decided that the most benefit would come from going ahead with the design since there would be many who would benefit and likely no more than what existing standards permitted would be harmed.
On the other hand, a decision maker using the deontological approach would easily have decided not to move ahead with production and/or to recall the car once it was on the market. Since this individual would base their decision on a set of moral values and/or the rights of individuals, they would likely argue that the car should not be produced unless the rights of the minority group who would be harmed could be assured.
The results of a decision of an individual following a psychological approach would vary depending on their level of cognitive moral development (p. 115). If for example, they were at a preconventional level they likely would have agreed to move forward with the sale of the Pinto and/or not to recall it from the market because they would have been highly influenced by others in the company. They would have feared punishment from management or they would have hoped that by supporting the majority opinion that they would have been rewarded in some way. Even if the individual was at the conventional level they might still not have decided to redesign the Pinto’s tank. While striving for “good behavior” they would have been highly influenced by the majority of decision makers in the company and not gone against their will. They also would have followed the “letter of the law” which supported the case of not needing to make a change to the design. Only if they had a highly developed postconventional or principled level of moral development would they have felt the need to go against the trend within the company in order to uphold the rights of the minority “regardless of the majority opinion (p. 115).
By the way, I survived my 1974 Ford Pinto! Thank goodness I wasn’t rear-ended!
Trevino, L., and Nelson, K., (2005). Corporate social responsibility and managerial ethics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.