Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of ethical questions I’m having my class work through. I had just finished writing this up when i heard on NPR that Altria is shutting down it’s philanthropic work over the next two years. Good timing! Bonus points on this one if you can tell me what book I was reading when I came up with the names.

Gordon Struan is on the board of directors for Green Valley Orchestra (GVO), a professional regional orchestra known for its innovative programming and willingness to perform new works by modern composers. Struan’s role is to maintain and develop financial donors.

GVO, like many such ensembles, is having a difficult time meeting its financial obligations. Although their concerts are well-attended, the income from concert ticket sales alone is not enough to pay the salaries of the orchestra members. Without significant donations from outside foundations and wealthy patrons, the orchestra simply could not continue to perform.

Struan is faced with a dilemma. His three largest donors all lost large sums of money in the collapse of the real estate market, and have informed him that they are no longer able to donate to the orchestra. Struan must raise $6 million, or the orchestra will have to cancel their season and declare bankruptcy. Two potential donors have indicated that they might be willing to step in and give the needed money, but both come with strings attached.

smoking kidsThe first potential donor is a company named Altria. Altria has long been known in the arts community for their philanthropic activity; they support many regional performing ensembles, and seem especially interested in supporting innovative groups, like GVO, who perform new works. Altria is also the parent company of Phillip-Morris, a cigarette manufacturer that aggressively markets its Marlboro brand to children in 3rd-world countries. Altria’s support of the arts seems like a carefully calculated PR strategy to improve the public image of their company.

smokin grannyThe second potential donor is Victoria Wagner, a well-known and very wealthy member of the local community. Wagner has never shown an interest in supporting the arts before, so Struan is understandably curious when she contacts him with the offer. In the ensuing conversations, however, if becomes clear why Ms. Wagner has had a sudden change of heart. It turns out that her beloved nephew is a struggling composer, and has had difficulty getting his works performed by professional ensembles. Ms. Wagner makes it quite clear to Mr. Struan that if she writes a $6 million check, she expects the Green Valley Orchestra to debut his latest composition.

So, Struan is left with three options. He can accept the money from a cigarette giant hoping to buy some public good-will, he can accept the money from the doting rich aunt looking to launch her nephew’s career, or he can refuse both and close the doors of the Green Valley Orchestra.

Your job isn’t to solve this problem for Mr. Struan. In fact, I don’t even want you to tell me what you would do. Instead, I’d like you to think about the moral values that are in conflict in this dilemma. We will answer the following questions in class:

  1. If GVO takes the money from Altria, is it an implied statement of support for the company’s business practices?
  2. If a utilitarian were to evaluate the Altria donation, what consequences would they have to consider?
  3. Struan is having a hard time evaluating the Wagner donation. He has a sense that some moral principle is being violated by her request, but he isn’t sure exactly what it is. What do you think is wrong with her request? What kind of moral principle does it violate?
  4. Does it matter if the composition by Victoria Wagner’s nephew is well-written or not? Would it matter if he were already a well-established composer?
  5. Struan is a devout Lutheran, and believes that God’s commands are the final source of moral authority. Is there a biblical command that could help Struan navigate either decision?
  6. Kant said that we should act in ways that we would wish to see made universal rules. If Struan refuses to take money from morally tainted sources, is that an act that we would want to see universally applied? What would the consequences be if we applied that principle universally?

Previous in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

7 thoughts on “Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

  1. michael lee Post author

    Today was the first class session where people actually got angry. I view that as a positive step. For the most part, this generation grew up being afraid of the conflict of ideas, and they don’t really understand the necessity of argument. The fact that we finally hit on ideas that they believe have real consequences, and are willing to passionately disagree with ideas of another student, is a really good thing.

    I made them get up and move into groups in the room, those who would take the money from Altria, those who would take the money from Wagner, and those who would close the doors of the symphony. One young woman from the Altria group got so angry with someone from the “close the doors” group that she practically yelled, “I can’t believe you, as a musician, are actually telling me you think we need one less orchestra, one less artistic group in the world. THAT’S morally disgusting!”

    It was a great, great class period today. We’ve moved beyond the “general survey of opinions” stage to the “critically evaluate each other’s ideas” stage. Viva la Academia!

  2. Sharolyn

    My husband plays in a lot of regional orchestras and sometimes plays under mediocre conductors from wealthy families.

    And in no way do we ever mock them in our home…

  3. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="134623"]And in no way do we ever mock them in our home…[/quote]

    I think Jesus would mock them if he had to suffer under a weak-wristed, no ictuse-having, everything-is-phrased-like-a-romantic-concerto conductor.

  4. Sharolyn

    [quote comment="134640"]

    I think Jesus would mock them if he had to suffer under a weak-wristed, no ictuse-having, everything-is-phrased-like-a-romantic-concerto conductor.[/quote]

    And also when he’s conducting an off-stage chorus whose volume diminishes to nothing by using beats two feet above his head.

    While smoking.

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