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Case Study: With Strings Attached

posted on January 27th, 2017

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 develop and maintain relationships with 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 recent financial turmoil, and have informed him that they are no longer able to donate to the orchestra. Struan must raise $1.6 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.

The 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.

The 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, it becomes clear why Ms. Wagner has had a sudden change of heart. It turns out that her beloved nephew is a young composer who has had difficulty getting his works performed by professional ensembles. Ms. Wagner makes it quite clear to Mr. Struan that if she writes a $1.6 million check, she expects the Green Valley Orchestra to premiere his latest composition.

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

Take a few minutes to think about the moral values that are in conflict in this dilemma.

  1. What personal biases might we be bringing to this situation?
  2. If a utilitarian were to evaluate the Altria donation, what consequences would they have to consider?
  3. If Struan had read Kant’s writings on ethics, how might that influence his decision in this case? What would Kant have to say about this issue?
  4. What might CS Lewis say if he were sitting down with Struan?
  5. Struan is a devout Lutheran, and believes that God’s commands are the final source of moral authority. Is there a biblical command or principle that could help Struan navigate either decision?
  6. If GVO takes the money from Altria, does it imply support for the company’s business practices?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. What should Struan do?

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