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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Cases like that of the Ford Pinto's defective fuel system design show us that harms are more likely to be done when the victim is far removed from the person who does the harm. How does this case relate to the “Trolley Problem” thought experiment and what lesson can we learn from neuropsychology that helps us to understand people's varied responses to the two versions of the problem? Explain.

The Trolley Problem essentially raises the question of whether the amount of lives saved is more important than an intervention in which taking action to divert the disaster would kill a smaller number of lives. The problem lies in how these lives are valued, as well as in how someone engages with the issue. The Ford Pinto case study is a unique one. Ford knowingly produced a deadly vehicle, cynically assuming that liability from around 180 deaths was going to cost less than the intervention to each and every car.

Ford's case is very different from the trolley problem. Ford knowingly created a deadly vehicle, assuming that profits and its returns to shareholders were far more important than human lives. Ford knew that releasing the car would lead to deaths. 180 deaths, from the distance of a boardroom full of millionaires, may not have seemed  like very much. Yet for the families of the people killed by these explosions, the pain was immediate and real.

Ford's case is the opposite of the Trolley Problem. In the Trolley Problem, inaction results in many deaths, and action results in fewer deaths. In no part of the thought exercise is the individual near the control switch implicated in sending the trolley rolling down the tracks, which is what Ford did.

Neuropsychiatrists have offered insight into why the “Fat Man” variation of the Trolley Problem evokes so many more emotions. The result points back to some of the evidence in the Pinto issue. The decision-makers for the cars were at a high level: They did not touch the cars, make them, or meet customers. To them, customers were not people, just profit streams. Yet the horror of dying in a fiery car crash is extremely emotional. The intervention in the Trolley Problem involves switching a lever, rather than sacrificing an individual. The individual sacrificed in the Trolley Problem is merely incidental to the choice to save others' lives, whereas the “Fat Man” is the tool through which those lives are saved. In the case of the Ford Pinto, the “sacrifice” was the additional funds that would have been lost, and would have impaired profits slightly. The company failed to consider the additional profit that non-explosive cars might have generated.

In sum, problems in which intervention is required and in which the individual is not culpable for the disaster seem straightforward, or at least they are more so. The Trolley Problem rests on whether someone wants to intervene if they perceive they will have blood on their hands, whereas the Pinto problem involved conscious decisions to unleash a fiery trolley on innocent consumers. When the ethical outcome involves sacrificing a human, however, the questions are much thornier.

2. Perhaps unsurprisingly, deontologists tend to be defenders of stakeholder theory. We see many deontological principles at work in criticisms of various modern marketing and advertising practices. Identify and explain three different objections to modern forms of marketing that embody deontological principles. Explain, using examples where helpful. 

Deontology, the ethical framework in which adherence to only one “categorical imperative” governs decisions, is a common approach to ethics. Within business, the deontological approach might follow the categorical imperative of a mission, or of delivering results to shareholders, as Friedman argued in the 1970s. Yet in the present day, deontological criticisms are not just used to justify business action, but also to object to certain forms of marketing. The stakeholder theory transforms the categorical imperative from the shareholder to the  stakeholder, a term that reflects every individual touched by a business' decision.

Deontology is the   engine behind the idea of CSR, or corporate  social responsibility, which is  a paradigm  arguing that corporations have an obligation to the environment, to the people affected by their company (e.g., people displaced by manufacturing facilities, people unemployed through offshoring, people whose water supply is contaminated due to lack of attention to factory waste, etc.), and to the community. From this perspective, many contemporary deontologists critique marketing that shows businesses as wholly benevolent since they are engaging in actions that have consequences.

Marketing can also be perceived as dishonest from deontologists who might find the claims dishonest in how they promote the product to consumers. For example, Philip Morris has known for decades that cigarettes cause cancer, but by continuing to market them as a fun, refreshing indulgence, or even as an act of self-care, they have harmed or even killed millions of people. Eliminating critical information in this way is a violation of deontological precepts about, for example, a categorical imperative to do no harm, or to do business in an honest way. Advertisements for dangerous products that withhold key information are violating many universal rules, especially if one considers the potential impact on shareholders due to liability issues.

A third major deontological objection has to do with the marketing images themselves. Many people believe that marketing reflects values.  Certain types of advertising may use sex to sell  products, or may use tactics that exploit people. “People on the street” commercials are an example of a type of advertisement that could, at least in an innocuous way, make people engage in silly or embarrassing actions. While subjects must usually give their consent,  the process can be humiliating. As for  sexualized ads, there are many objections from a deontological view. Sexualizing products  that have nothing to do with sex may seem  outrageous, but it also distracts from opportunities to discuss the products' features. In this age of online  stock  photos and  the ability to use photos through  licensing agencies,  people can unwittingly become the face of a business they may not even approve of.  For example, consider a model, who agreed to do some stock photography for a flat fee. Several years later, without being consulted and after she signed her rights  to the  image away, she becomes the face of a “niche” dating site that has licensed her photographs. Similarly, images of children or other vulnerable people could be used in unsavory ways.

Images have power, and the images and strategies that companies use to market their products are also powerful. When one believes that businesses should follow a categorical imperative of honesty and respect for customers by advertising honestly and keeping the information relevant, the deontological criticism against marketing's use of “sex sells,” of making people into fools, and more makes sense.

3. Why might someone say that the “dirty hands” problem in business really stems from a separation between the “private sphere” and the “public sphere”? What are some problems with thinking of business as belonging only to the public sphere?

The “dirty hands” problem in business refers to the idea that immoral choices might be the best or only path to moral actions or outcomes. Consider the “Fat Man” variation of the Trolley Problem. In this situation, many people would agree that saving the people below is moral. Yet others would not want to kill anyone. As a whole, this is an example of the “dirty hands” problem since saving the people, or the nominally morally correct action, requires an action many would consider immoral: Killing a human being.

The “private sphere” and the “public sphere” are two concepts that are not necessarily at odds with each other. The private sphere represents the domain of business, and the area under the control of business. It can be likened to medieval fiefdoms, in which each small kingdom fell under the total rule of a king. For example, a private park might be owned by a corporation and intended for the benefits of those who work on its campus. The private sphere is an area in which benefits, such as profits and resources, are concentrated among those who are affiliated with the private organization. Yet the risks can be concentrated among the public, such as  with  products impairing public health (e.g., extremely unhealthy food  products,  cigarettes, Ford Pintos, etc.). In other words, the risks are socialized but the benefits are privatized.

Meanwhile, the public sphere is considered a broader umbrella, one in which a larger government sphere dominates and regulates. This might include a public park that all can use, and that is paid for with tax dollars. Many of the tax dollars come from business' taxation, much to the umbrage of firms. The public sphere  is an idea  originating in the work of Jurgen Habermas, who proposed that democracies function when  there is an area where ideas can  be debated. In this model, the benefits and risks are socialized,  presumably because of a democratic ideal that  all people are  equal.  

When we consider business as part of the public sphere and only the public sphere, it does a disservice to the role of business itself. A corporation is a legal entity that is, effectively, personhood for a non-person, which is so embodied specifically in order to generate profits back to shareholders. Could this person participate in the public sphere in the sense  that Habermas envisioned? Probably not. But unlike other people, who presumably have ideals and values that  go beyond merely making money, a corporation's entire existence and categorical imperative involves profits. Therefore, it cannot fully participate in the public sphere.

The “dirty hands” problem reflects the mismatch between the public and private spheres, and the different obligations that corporations have, according to different perspectives. Since morality itself is subjective, the “dirty hands” problem itself seems to reflect one particular view of morality. Therefore, understanding the answers to the “dirty hands” problem itself involves exploring one's own ideas about morality.

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