In the early 1970's, the Ford Motor Company introduced in the market a subcompact automobile called Pinto. The car was a success, with nearly 100,000 units sold between September 1970 and February 1971. Nevertheless, the vehicle became the object of a dark chapter of Ford's history. Due to a design flaw, the fuel tank was easily damaged in rear end collisions, which, in some cases, resulted in deadly fires and explosions. It later came out that the car maker had since long known about the vulnerable fuel tank. In spite of that, the company decided not to take the necessary corrective actions. This decision was based on a cost-benefit analysis that indicated that it would cost approximately $138 million to improve the car safety, while only nearly $49 million would be necessary to pay off eventual lawsuits for the resulting deaths and injuries.
The case related above is far from being unique. Companies and governments often use cost-benefit analysis to put a dollar value on human life.
The first part of the video that follows shows a very interesting lecture on utilitarianism, by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, in which he discusses cases like this and the ethical considerations involved.
Watch it on Academic Earth