Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hotels and Kant

I've been fascinated by the way in which hotels now play up the fact that they send in folks to freshen up rooms less frequently as something that has environmentally friendly effects. By using less water and energy washing towels and sheets, the hotel industry is having less of a negative impact on the earth. For this, they seek credit.

There is a famous passage in Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he argues that the only morally good acts are those which are the right thing done by an agent who receives no reward or who suffers harm as a result. If there is any way in which you benefit from doing the right thing, even if it is just a warm and fuzzy feeling, then the act deserves no moral praise since you may have done the right thing for the wrong reason. To act rightly is to act solely from duty for the sake of duty.

This is a section that students always find counter-intuitive. On the one hand, sure, intentions matter. But then again, shouldn't you give credit wherever credit is due. Even if there is some reward, the person did the right thing and doesn't that in itself make the act a good one?

The hotel case reminded me of this passage because, while it is wonderful that hotels are in this case are having a less harmful impact on the planet, they also are saving significant money on electricity, labor, water, detergent, and wear and tear on industrial washing machines and driers. And strangely, these hotels that put such nice pictures of nature on the page explaining this policy also have no means of recycling the paper they leave for you every morning whether you intend to read it not.

So, is Kant right here? Does the hotel industry deserve any greenie brownie points?