Sample Paper on Applying Utilitarianism to the Ford Pinto Mishap

Applying Utilitarianism to the Ford Pinto Mishap


In May 1968, Ford Motor Company decided to launch a subcompact car that would be produced locally. This followed recommendation from Lee Iacocca, then working as the vice president of the company. In the quest to gain the largest market share, and faced with growing competition from Japanese motor companies, the Ford Pinto was designed, developed and introduced in a hastened schedule. In the initial years after introduction, sales for the Pinto were impressive. However, this was to change in 1972. In May of that year, Lily Gray and Richard Grimshaw were travelling in a 1972 Ford Pinto when a car moving at about 30 miles per hour struck from behind their vehicle. The collision ignited a blaze in the Pinto, leading to the death of Lily Gray. Meanwhile, Grimshaw suffered serious injuries. When this matter was taken to court, it was discovered that Ford had overlooked some vital engineering flaws during the design and construction of the Pinto. Ethical arguments and counterarguments have since been raised to justify or admonish Ford’s actions. This paper will examine the facts of the case and then use utilitarianism to explain whether Ford behaved ethically.

The Ford Pinto Mishap

In the late 1960s, Japanese automakers were threatening to take over the US market. In addition, gas prices were significantly available, meaning that many people were motivated to drive. Meanwhile, campaigns for energy consumption were heating up. All these factors encouraged the Ford Motor Company to introduce a car that would be cheap, small and would appeal to all buyers. Lee Iacocca came up with the idea of Ford Pinto to meet these requirements. The Pinto was designed to weigh no more than 2000 pounds and to cost less than $2000 (Samuel & Weir 346).

During testing, a practice that usually precede introduction to the market, engineers realized that the Pinto had a serious design defect. The gas tank had been designed and placed in a position such that when another vehicle moving at an impact speed of above 20 miles per hour, the tank could rupture, thereby starting a fire, struck from behind the car. The tank was about 13 centimeters forward from the back sheet metal of the car body and about 8 centimeters back of the rear axle housing. In nearly all the rear end crash tests, it was observed that the axle housing distorted the tank and protruding, sharp bolts punctured it (tank). In 20 mph moving crashes from behind, the crush distance was more than eight inches.

Engineers doing the crash tests concluded that the rear end design of Ford Pinto failed to meet safety measures. It was concluded that the twisting of the gas tank, the leakage as well as the destruction to the filler pipe rendered the structure of the car unsatisfactory. Some of the company’s engineers suggested some changes to address these defects. However, this would mean an additional cost to production, at about $11 per vehicle. Ford’s directors had their own reservations on these changes, on the fact that they increased the cost of the car. A memo released in 1971 dictated that no further safety measures could be adopted for the 1973 and subsequent car until demanded by law (Samuel & Weir 346).

After carrying out a cost benefit analysis, Ford’s accountants noted that it was not cost effective to add an extra $11 per car in order to correct the defects. Benefits accrued from using this amount of money was approximated to be around $49.5 million. The accountants assumed that each death that would be avoided would generate $200,000, each avoided major burn injury would be worth $67,000 and a standard repair cost of $700 per vehicle involved in rear end collision would be avoided. They also projected that there would be 180 serious burn injuries, 180 burn deaths and 2100 burned cars.

Spreading the unit cost over the number of light trucks and cars that would be subject to design change, at an extra $11 each, they found that the cost would be $137 million. This was almost thrice the amount they would otherwise gain if they did not effect the change. Ford decided to introduce the car as it had been designed initially. It is estimated that between 500 and 900 people died in Pinto related accidents. The company was later to be involved in a number of lawsuits. For instance, it was compelled by a court to pay $560,000 to Gray’s family and $2.5 million to Grimshaw. It was also initially fined $125 million for damages costs. However, this was reduced to $3.5 million (Samuel & Weir 346).

Applying Utilitarianism to this case

Jeremy Bentham played a leading role in advancing the ethical discourse. He is most famous for coming up with act utilitarianism, a key component of the utilitarian theory, which has become one of the most broadly accepted ethical theories today. Bentham introduced this sub-theory in his widely acknowledged book titled ‘An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation’. The book itself was launched in 1789. Bentham believed that human nature is governed by our responses to pleasure and pain. Therefore, a good deed is one that maximizes the overall pleasure (happiness) for the greatest number of affected people.

The notion of utilitarianism has existed for a long time. It is built from the concepts of consequentialism as well as Hedonism, theories that can be traced as far back as the antique Roman and Greek times. Consequentiality always believe that the upshots or consequences of an action are the only determinants of whether it is right or wrong. To this group, the end justifies the means since no motives or morals are factored when assessing a deed. On their part, hedonists believe that happiness is the ultimate moral good whilst unhappiness is the greatest from of evil. Jeremy Bentham cultivated these philosophical ideals to establish what he called the principal of utility. To support his assertions, he argued that nature has positioned human beings under the direction of two supreme masters: pleasure and pain. For this reason, it is for them to tell us what we are supposed to do and to determine what we will do.

To determine whether a deed causes more pain or pleasure for the greatest number of affected people, proponents of utilitarianism, use the hedonistic calculus. The seven factors that are applied in this framework include duration, intensity, purity, certainty, fertility, propinquity and extent. The hedonistic calculus makes deciding on an ethical dilemma much easier since it permits all the factors used in the choice to be accorded equal consideration. When applied accurately, the right selection will be clear after the consideration. Let us apply this theory to the Ford Pinto case.

The first factor in the hedonistic calculus is intensity. In Ford’s case, it cannot be denied that the company made a lot of money from the sale of Ford Pinto. In addition, it is possible that it might have gained a considerable share of the subcompact vehicle market. However, the loss of human lives (up to 900) was far more intense, for the deceased and their loved ones who were left behind. The numerous deaths and injuries caused much pain to the greatest number of people, as opposed to the few stakeholders who derived a profit from the car sales.

The second factor, duration, is also associated with more pain than pleasure for most people. Ford’s success is built on a variety of factors. In most cases, the success of one car cannot translate to overall success if others cars are making losses. Therefore, even if Ford Pinto would have been somewhat successful, it could not determine sustained, long-term success of the company itself. Unlike short-term minimal success that would give temporary pleasure to a few executives, death and scars are permanent and clearly represent more pain for the departed and their loved ones.

The third factor, certainty, caused more pleasure than pain for most people. The early release of the car brought more revenues and helped Ford attain a more competitive position in the US market. While the car sales were certain, the deaths and injuries associated with the design error were not certain. After all, a car had to be knocked from behind and at a particular speed before a fire could be ignited. In the same breath, propinquity (the fourth factor) was more pleasurable than painful. The positive effects gained by Ford were almost immediate after the release of the car. However, the deaths, injuries and lawsuits were spread over a number of years. This meant that the car continued to sale for some years. It took seven years for the car to be recalled.

When it comes to purity, Ford Pinto caused more pain than pleasure. About fifty lawsuits were leveled against Ford due to the rear end collisions. The Ford Pinto has since been twice named the worst cars of all time lists. This reputation is damaging. The sixth factor, fecundity, is also associated with more pain than pleasure for the greatest number of people. Had Ford succeeded in its mischievous attempt, other automakers would have adopted a pattern of neglecting safety concerns. As a result, the overall wellbeing of the public would be in serious and immediate danger. Many accidents would end up being fatal. This would have negatively affected billions of people, as opposed to the few executives who would gain from disregarding safety concerns. The extent of Ford’s actions was enormous. It forced policy makers to tighten care safety measures to avoid a repeat. The Ford Pinto was recalled eventually. The company’s reputation has continued to suffer. This implies that the extent was also painful.


After all the seven factors in the hedonistic calculus have been considered, it can be seen that more pain was associated with five categories. Ford derived pleasure in only two categories, certainty and propinquity. This indicates that, according to utilitarianism, Ford clearly made an ethical decision when it released the Ford Pinto early. It should have redesigned the car before the release even if this would have been costlier.

Works Cited

Samuel, Andrew, and John Weir. Introduction to Engineering Design. Burlington: Elsevier, 1999. Print.