The Right to an Unsafe Car? : Consumer Choice and Three Types of Autonomy


The Ford Pinto’s fuel tank was prone to rupture in collisions above 20 mph, sometimes resulting in burn deaths. An infamous Ford memo estimated the cost of a shield correcting the problem at $11. Should Ford have installed the shield, holding public safety paramount, or, respecting consumer autonomy, have made the shield an option? Answering this question requires distinguishing between three kinds of autonomy: merechoice autonomy (deciding something for oneself, regardless of the content of the choice), proclamative autonomy (making a choice that holds up a value or standard, commitment to which is partly definitive of who one is), and high-impact autonomy (making a choice that profoundly affects one’s ability to make proclamative choices). (This is not a formal distinction, that is, a distinction meant be to be clear, rigorous, and neutral). Autonomy is thus asymmetric: choosing to do x may be highly proclamative while choosing not to do x is not. In the Pinto case, not giving consumers the option of declining the shield undercuts only mere-choice autonomy. Several arguments are provided (including an argument based on the nature of moral agency) that proclamative autonomy (and, derivatively, high-impact autonomy), rather than mere-choice autonomy, has significant positive value. More precisely, it is argued that, as a rule, the more proclamative a choice is, other things being equal, the more weight autonomy claims about that choice possess. The paper concludes that common sense is correct about the Pinto case. In some instances, consumer choice may legitimately count more than the engineer’s commitment to public safety (particularly when proclamative choice is involved). However, losing the opportunity to save $11 is not too large a price to pay in order to counter market pressures against safety by inducing in engineers a professional commitment to put safety first.



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Eugene Schlossberger
Purdue University Calumet

Citations of this work

Engineering Codes of Ethics and the Duty to Set a Moral Precedent.Eugene Schlossberger - 2016 - Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (5):1333-1344.

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References found in this work

Engineers Who Kill: Professional Ethics and the Paramountcy of Public Safety.Kenneth Kipnis - 1981 - Business and Professional Ethics Journal 1 (1):77-91.
Engineers Who Kill: Professional Ethics and the Paramountcy of Public Safety.Kenneth Kipnis - 1981 - Business and Professional Ethics Journal 1 (1):77-91.

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