Is it Ethical to Travel Now? With that Freedom Comes Responsibility


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“Is it ethical to travel now?” The relationship between freedom and responsibility might provide you the answer.

Popular question these days. The temptation to answer “yes” or “no” misses the opportunity to separate the issues facing travelers, including that our freedom to travel carries with it a personal responsibility — just as it always has.

There’s nothing new there. It’s just that the din of the pre-COVID travel party and the freedom cocktail we all shared drowned out most of the conversation about personal responsibility in travel.

Then COVID-19 came along and pressed a gigantic pause button, including on our assumptions. It subjected us to some travel deprivation and served up some forced reflection. It also seems to have tricked us into thinking that some of the ethical considerations surrounding our travel decisions are new when they’re not.

As our own health and well-being have come into sharper focus, so has the health and well-being of others — something that probably should have been atop everyone’s radar all along.

Ethical Travel: Freedom and Responsibility in Travel

Freedom, Responsibility and Meaning: The Travel Payoff

“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

—Victor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

When we go out into the world – whether across the globe or around the block – we exercise a freedom. That freedom is paired with a responsibility to ourselves and to others. We can choose to ignore that responsibility. If we do, we slowly — and usually imperceptibly — erode those freedoms.

For example, at home we have a responsibility to pick up after ourselves. If we throw trash on our streets and everyone follows suit, we live in garbage together. If we walk down the sidewalk as if the sidewalk is ours alone, and others do the same, we collide.

 

As we exercise our freedom, the care we take and the responsibility we choose to bear actually lends shape, meaning and value to our lived experience.

When we travel, similar forces are at work, only the playing field is a bit larger.

The greater lesson in Frankl’s quote as it applies to travel: as we exercise our freedom, the care we take and the responsibility we choose to bear actually lends shape, meaning and value to our lived experience. As the frame of our travels expands from #whatismine to #whatisours, effort is required.

But that effort pays dividends. Do the right thing as you pursue pleasure and experience altered states of consciousness (yes, that’s what we’re doing when we travel) and your travels take on greater meaning because you have cared for others.

This plays out always – whether in the context of COVID-19, climate change awareness, or consciousness while walking the streets of a destination you’re visiting.

It’s tempting to quietly give up on something like responsibility, for it’s another burden atop all the others. Maybe we ought to realize it’s impossible to live an entirely ethical life. If that’s our goal, exhaustion is ours. Instead, maybe we abandon purity and perfection and do the best we can by being aware of the impacts of our actions on others.

We can begin by thinking, caring and respecting. We can spend a few cycles educating ourselves, performing research, practicing awareness, and acting on some of what we learn. As we consider our decisions and their impacts, we become more aware of the parameters and the forces at work.

We adjust, shaping a world that aligns with our values.

Should You Travel Now?

“Should I travel now?”

“Should I do ______ now?”

It’s a personal decision. That redirect is not just diplomatic avoidance. Instead, it implies that your answer ought to depend on the choices you make, how you intend to travel and whether and how you care about the well-being of others along the way.

It applies whether you journey just outside your front door or halfway around the world.

It has always applied.

And its truth remains with each of us until we take our last trip.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

12 thoughts on “Is it Ethical to Travel Now? With that Freedom Comes Responsibility”

  1. I traveled in July. From one point I could say that this was the best experience, as there were no crowds anywhere. Whole cities, old towns, etc are just for you… But of course, another is an ethical aspect and the aspect that if you want a cultural experience – nothing is open…

    Reply
    • It is always nice when you have a place to yourself as a traveler, but sometimes that does make you wonder whether you should be there in the first place 🙂 I think we’ll be asking ourselves these questions for quite some time as different parts of the world open up after they have been vaccinated to a certain percent and rates of new cases begin to go down.

      Reply
  2. I would say absolutely no travel now. The USA just experienced days of 160K and 183K of new infections – a million new infections in one week. 8000 people dead. Europe is getting hammers. People should be less selfish and just stay at home. What’s a year, even if you lock yourselves down for a year? Nothing.

    Reply
    • Your response gets to the heart of the question here regarding taking responsibility for other people’s health and well-being, as well as your own, when making the decision whether to travel. More of the world is getting vaccinated now, but there are still great inequalities as to where those vaccines are going and it will take potentially years for the world to be vaccinated. These questions around ethics and travel and responsibility have always been there, but they will continue to rise up more and more with this and other pandemics.

      Reply
  3. Yes to travel but in a different way. No more crowded places, no more parties, avoiding restaurants and staying at a distance from other people. I’ve realized I’m more a long time traveler, I like to enjoy a place on my own time and surprisingly I didn’t miss going in bars or the parties. I visited a lot of beaches, tried local food, had long walks. I think now traveling is more secure and maybe authentic because I can see how the locals are living, what are their favorite places to eat.

    Reply
    • Annemarie, well put. Here’s to travel in a different, more meaningful way, than what was the norm prior to the pandemic. I do think that as travel emerges again travelers will seek more natural settings, smaller towns and local businesses so that they have a different experience.

      Reply
  4. I’ve been trying to write a similar article on my Medium page for months now, and I can’t seem to finish it. I’m just not sure where I land on the question. I like how you explore the concept of freedom; I’ve been thinking of pandemic travel as connected to the parallel concept of privilege. How privileged to even be considering world travel right now… but then again, people like us who get to cross borders for pleasure (rather than to flee war, drought, etc.) have always exercised extreme privilege.

    Reply
    • Stephanie, it’s definitely a complex issue to think and write about, especially when you also begin looking into the layer of privilege on top of all this. Travel is definitely a privilege that most of the world still does not have access to due to socio-economic, political or many other reasons. So, understanding and acknowledging the privilege to do have to make decisions about travel goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for our actions.

      Reply
  5. I really appreciate the insight of this article. As someone who is looking to do some soul searching and travelling, I have been struggling with the ethical part of this decision, but I’m also wondering if travelling now would be as beneficial with all the travel restrictions. Will I be able to find jobs if I’m abroad for several months, will I be able to meet people and have the experiences/adventures I’m hoping to? So many things to consider right now.

    Reply
    • Madi, you ask some good questions regarding whether travel now would be as enjoyable to you and also beneficial to the local community. Even as vaccinations begin to roll out around the world, it will still take a lot of time for local populations in many countries to be vaccinated so that travel is again safe for everyone.

      Reply
  6. Great answer to an essential question. It just shows that the answer is relative. We should be aware how we’re traveling in those times, but also pre-pandemic. Even pre-pandemic there are many ways to travel with a devastating effect on local communities when we’re not considerate about our travel behavior.

    We should be more aware of our actions and its effects now than ever and use travel as a means to support communities and the environment.
    Love your philosophic approach to it! 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you, Lynn, for your thoughtful comment. As you said, even pre-pandemic many of these same issues of negative impacts existed, but we were perhaps not as aware of them. We do hope that an outcome of the pandemic is that people are more aware of the potential impact of their travel decisions and support the places and people they visit.

      Reply

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