Ford Pinto through a stoic lens


The decision to go ahead with manufacture of the Ford Pinto in 1971 is an interesting moral issue. Ford decided to mass-produce the Pinto despite the fire hazard of the gas tank, which was identified during prototype testing. The model failed the standards of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  (NHTSA) whereby all new automobiles in 1972, be able to withstand a 20mph rear end crash without fuel loss.

One of the fundamentals of stoicism is knowing what you can and cannot control. Within our control are things such as our opinions, morals and desires. We have a choice about these essential characteristics of our inner lives. We are not in control for example of what kind of body we have, others’ opinions of us; we don’t have control of the world or being born into wealth.

This Ford case shows the importance, role and duty the manufacturer had to the customer. They had the knowledge and control to change the tank and redesign and pass on the cost to the customer of 11 dollars per customer. They had control to see beyond the money value and treat it as a moral problem instead. When they ignored the opportunity to redesign they automatically sealed the fate of an unknown quantity of people who had to, therefore, deal with unnecessary suffering and learn to cope with avoidable challenges.

As an engineer there will, understandably, be situations in our careers that will require compromise where decisions will not present themselves clearly. In this case I see a clear solution was presented to the manufacturer and they ignored their responsibilities to customers. Spreading the cost 11 dollars per customer (70 dollars equivalent today) would be preferable for the majority of people and a far better option than essentially putting a lottery on your life and well-being. Standards outlined by the NHTSA were ignored and Ford relied on their own cost-benefit reasoning.

In terms of the customer buying a faulty Ford Pinto the problem could also be looked at through the lens of stoic philosophy. It could be conceived that no matter what ones circumstances happen to be, i.e. burns victim; there are simple ways to happiness, fulfillment and tranquility.

However, the amount of suffering one deals with could be enormously increased by the irresponsibility of those with control and knowledge. For example, in the Ford Pinto case, the engineers had knowledge that 180 lives could be lost and 180 people could deal with serious burns over the coming decades. The amount of suffering is immeasurable as human-to-human suffering is entirely different to a measurable unit such as money. What capsizes one persons boat may merely rock one persons boat. What the engineers at Ford did was attempt to quantify suffering it terms of monetary value which indeed is a way used today to justify decision making, for example for level crossing safety redesign. Who deems the value of a human life? Who can put a monetary value on the mental anguish suffered by those burn victims?

Indeed a stoic point of view will inevitably be able to reduce suffering of those undergoing anguish. However, if those people were told that somebody knew this situation would definitely occur, it turns from being a problem of inevitable human suffering to unfair suffering due to unethical decision making.

Rachel Morecroft

4th Year MEng in Mechanical Engineering student

*The author of the blog recommends  ‘The Art of Living’ by Sharon Lebell


2 thoughts on “Ford Pinto through a stoic lens

  1. Very nice blog and thank you for taking the time to write it.

    Although stoicism is not perfect in its own way, it’s definitely a better approach to this particular problem than utilitarianism.

    Clearly shows how a single theory or solution is not valid for every ethical dilemma.


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