Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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View Program and Text Highlights

The video highlight shows our panelists in action. The Discussion Guide frames their debates in contemporary terms, while the Ethics Reader grounds the discussion in the philosophy of the past.


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How much risk is too much?

Maxicorp, a private corporation, invents the MaxiMile, a device that doubles automobile mileage. It's a huge technological breakthrough and a great business opportunity. All's well for two years as a car manufactured with the MaxiMile, the I-Care Car, sells 950,000 units. The corporation's enormous investment is on the way to paying off, the investors are optimistic, and the environmentalists are planning the next three projects.

Then an I-Care Car stalls on the highway while doing 85 miles per hour. It is rear-ended, the driver is killed, and the family threatens to sue I-Care Car and Maxicorp. Nine similar accidents occur, but there's still no proof that malfunctioning MaxiMiles caused the cars to stall.

Maxicorp executives have to decide how to conduct a credible investigation and what to disclose about the accident to the public and business partners. And parents have to decide whether they should stop driving their kids in an I-Care Car based on anecdotal evidence of risk.


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Framing This Discussion (from the Discussion Guide)

The MaxiMile scenario illustrates the conundrums and trade-offs typical in debates about product safety. What constitutes statistically acceptable risk? Should we accept more short-term risk to advance a technology that in the long run could help alleviate global environmental problems? How much information about product safety should a corporation disclose to consumers and its business partners? Can a corporation be trusted to conduct fair investigations and tests or should a third party be brought in? How should a corporation manage its public relations? Whom can the public trust?

For a deeper examination of the analysis abridged here, see the Discussion Guide.

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Philosophical Grounding of This Discussion (from the Ethics Reader)

Judging by the following passage from Wealth of Nations, economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith would argue that Maxicorp should behave like a person and follow its own self-interest. For Smith, a business's interest in profit motivates it to meet a consumer's interests in the value of the product, and it is this tension that inadvertently drives a robust economy.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. . . . "[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he [an individual] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

To read selections from philosophical texts relevant to this program, see Ethics Reader.

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