The Value of Dutiful Actions

by Carl Pierer

KantIn his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant states that an action has moral worth if and only if it is done from duty.Kant argues for his position by showing that morally right actions done from motives other than duty lack moral worth. He gives two examples:

The Shopkeeper always gives correct change. She does not care whether this is morally right or not. She is only faithful to her costumers because it ensures her making profit. Her sole motivation is self-interest and not duty.

The Philanthropist is kind because of a natural inclination. He just feels like being a morally good person. He too is not concerned with morality. Rather he behaves correctly because that is what he wants to do. He is lacking a feeling for duty.

It might be said that both actions lack moral worth since the agents are not concerned with morality at all. They do not care for whether their actions are moral. It is a happy coincidence that they are. Therefore, the agents do not deserve any moral credit. However, this argument does not prove Kant's claim conclusively. It only shows that actions lacking motivation from duty entirely are morally worthless. What if we understood Kant to mean that the action is only morally worthy if duty is the sole motivation?

Schiller's Joke expresses an intuitive resistance against this reasoning:

“The first speaker says: Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure. Hence I am plagued with doubts that I am not a virtuous person.

And the reply is: Sure, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely. And then with aversion to do what your duty enjoins you.

Intuitively, this sounds wrong. We are under no obligation to despise our friends. We can confidently like them and our friendly acts would still be morally worthy. This seems to refute Kant's claim that only actions done from duty have moral worth.

However, this objection differs from Kant's examples. Both the shopkeeper and the philanthropist lack motivation from duty entirely. All that drives them to do the morally right thing is self-interest or their natural character. Yet, the person who serves his friends with pleasure can at the same time still believe in his duty to serve his friends. So the case is: In addition to some non-duty directed motivation, the agents believe in their duty to moral behaviour. Do these actions have moral worth?

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Ai Weiwei and the fine art of the art installation

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

As a rule, I am wary of art installations. I am never sure if the form they take bear any relation to the political content they claim to espouse. Also, as a rule, I visit modern art exhibitions for their verbosity. The words speak to me of artistic intent that always races ahead, far in excess of its signifying objects. The intent itself I find to be of such beauty, nudging me with its faint hints of revolution and radical joy. Of course, it does worry me that I have to read the labels of things before I can calculate the impact they will have on my fervor and/or joy.

However, on the lowest rung of my pleasure-affording hierarchy lie modern art installations. I remember once visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and staring hard at a diagonal tube light mounted up on a wall. I also metaphorically bonked myself on the head for “Artist” not making the top three on the list of possibilities suitable to my eight year old self's artistic ability or lack thereof.

As I walked into Ai Weiwei's exhibition “Evidence” I thought to myself that I should maintain a healthy cynicism and a suitably controlled set of expectations about what a set of art installations ought to be able to evoke. In the late afternoon of a confusing Berlin summer, I got off the bus already flush with the pleasure of a scarily efficient public transport system, and walked down the lane to the spot on my Google map that said “Martin-Gropius-Bau”. The Bau is a startlingly beautiful building, all neo-Renaissance in its pastiche of dome, entryway columns, curlicued windows and shadowy moldings. Something already felt right. The sun shone bright and the clouds filtered out its strongest rays. I was suitably warm and the light was suitably right. Ai Weiwei in his entire grandfatherly wallpapered aura stared straight ahead and betrayed no amusement at my sudden and unexpected enthusiasm.

Atrium One

Ai Weiwei: Evidence, Stools, 2014, wooden stools; Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

Across eighteen rooms of the Bau were spread all the works that were being curated under the title “Evidence”. Playing with the concept of both what “discovery” means to police and detective records, and the concept of empirical “evidence” as relating to crimes both contemporary and historical, the main items of this exhibit comprise found, made, and remade artifacts—touchy, feely, gritty physical objects. Most of them display familiar hints of the Ai Weiwei oeuvre. They offer confusing and paradoxical cues by playing with the material they are composed of, they are parts of a much larger story that they bear evidence to, and they are often directly related to aspects of the artist's life.

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A sin tax on junk entertainment

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Unnamed (1)Governments should tax the production and consumption of junk entertainment like Angry Birds and The Bachelor to correct the market failures that encourage their overconsumption. As with tobacco and alcohol, the point of such sin taxes is not to prevent people from consuming things that are bad for them if they really want to. They are not like bans. Rather, such taxes communicate to consumers the real but opaque long-term costs to themselves of consuming such products so that they can better manage their choices about how much of their lives to give up to them.

At the heart of this proposal is the fact that high art – i.e. real art – like Booker prize winning novels and Beethoven is objectively superior to junk entertainment like Candy Crush and most reality TV. (For now, let us abstract from ‘middle-brow' entertainment like our new Golden Age of TV.) Some egalitarians of taste dispute the existence of any objective distinction in quality between pushpin and Pushkin and argue that the value of anything is merely the subjective value people put on it. I will humour them. The case for the objective superiority of art can be made entirely within a narrowly utilitarian -‘economistic' – account of subjective value: in the long run consuming junk entertainment is less pleasurable than consuming art.

At best, junk entertainment passes the time and brings us closer to death in a relatively painless way. At worst, passing a lot of time in this way makes us stupid by atrophying our abilities to appreciate anything more difficult. Hence the pejorative term ‘junk', for there is a strong resemblance between this sort of mental activity and eating cheeseburgers: the more cheeseburgers we eat, the less we enjoy each new one, and the fatter and more unhealthy we become. In contrast, art has the capacity not only to fill up the limited time we have in our lives, but in the process also to educate us in the enjoyment of its intellectual depths so that it produces more delight in us the more of it we consume. In economics terminology, the consumption of junk entertainment exhibits diminishing marginal utility and reduces our human capital while the consumption of art exhibits the opposite. Art is special.

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