Residential fires cause many deaths each year. Several companies manufacture fire
detectors in a highly competitive market. Jim is a senior engineer at one of these
companies. He has been invited to discuss with management the directions his company
should take in manufacturing and marketing fire detectors.
Jim knows that there are two basic types of fire detectors. Type A is very good for
certain types of fires, but for smoldering fires the detector will delay the alarm too
long or fail to detect the fire at all, sometimes resulting in the loss of life. Most
companies still manufacture type A because it is cheap to build and generally performs
well. Type a sells for $6 to $15.
Type B detectors combine Type A fire detecting abilities with a device for detecting
smoldering fires, which constitute about 5 percent of all fires. Type B detectors sell for
$15-30, but they could be sold for almost the price of type a detectors if they were
manufactured in large quantities. In order to bring this about (short of government
intervention prohibiting the sale of Type A detectors), many companies would have to
decide that, in the interest of greater public safety, they will sell only Type B fire
There is little evidence that this is going to happen. As things stand, most companies
either manufacture only Type A detectors, or at lest depend on Type A detectors for the
vast majority of their profit. Relatively few Type B detectors will sell under present
market conditions. However, we do not know for sure what the actual effect of a
companys example of selling only type B detectors would be. It might stimulate other
firms to follow the example, or it might cause the government to outlaw Type A detectors.
Jims company could still stay in business if it manufactured only Type B
detectors, because there is some market for them and fire detectors are only one of the
products manufactured by Jims company. Jim takes seriously the engineers
responsibility to hold paramount the safety and welfare of the public. He wonders what
this obligation implies in this situation. As he sees it, he faces two options:
He can make no attempt to change his firms policy, which is to manufacture mostly
type a detectors and sell a few Type B detectors (3 percent of the firms fire
detector sales). Type A detectors, of course, are safety devices with a known deficiency,
one of which can be corrected in Type B detectors. However, Type A detectors do work well
95 percent of the time. Also, far more people will buy Type A detectors than B under
present market conditions.
He can urge his company to go out of the business of making type A detectors and make
only type b detectors, arguing that this is the only ethically responsible thing to do. In
the long run, if other companies did the same thing, more lives would be saved and people
would not be exposed to a danger of which they are generally not aware. (People generally
do not know of the differences between Type A and Type B detectors.)
Which of these two options do you think is preferable? Can you think of any other
options that Jim should consider?
Note: The factual assumption you make about the effect the companys
decision to stop manufacturing Type A detectors would have on the rest of the market (or
other effects it might have) is crucial in this case. State your assumption and stay with
it throughout the analysis. One assumption, of course, is that you just dont have
any idea what the effect would be. You could ask what conclusions you would get if your
started with this. To complicate the situation, the assumption you make here may itself be
in part governed by ethical considerations, even though it is about the facts. That is,
when you dont know what the case will be in the future, what assumption is it most
ethically justifiable to make? After all, a lot rides on this assumption.