Haiti, Cruise Ships, and Moral Intuitions

The Dominican Republic is a much desired travel location for wealthy sun-seekers. Located on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic shares the island with another country to the west, Haiti.

Haiti is one of the world’s poorest nations, with escalating rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculous,  water-borne illnesses, economic deprivation, and extremely high rates of illiteracy. On January 12th, 2010 Haiti was struck by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, infrastructure destroyed, countless numbers became homeless and displaced, sick, injured, and are without food and water. Many are dying as I write this post. Haiti is in the midst of a severe humanitarian crisis.

Although Haiti was in desperate need of aid and world-wide support well before the earthquake struck, the quake’s occurrence has prompted an outpouring of donations to humanitarian aid organizations and other relief efforts. There are many courageous individuals currently on the ground in Haiti working tirelessly to help those in great need.

Given this escalating crisis, Bert Archer, writing for The Globe and Mail posed a provocative question in an article over the weekend: “One cruise this week docks for sunny fun in the Dominican Republic. Another stops in Haiti. It’s the same island. So why does one seem worse?”

Archer states that docking in Haiti “seems worse” based on the recent flurry of online debates on whether docking in Haiti this past week was “too soon and too close.” Archer queries,

Should cruise passengers, instead of drinking margaritas on their private beach at Labadee, 100 kilometres from Port au Prince, have hopped the fence that separates the Royal Caribbean International Cruise Line’s leased land from the rest of the country and helped dig people out? Or should they have stayed on board in protest, as half of them did when the first ship, The Independence of the Seas, stopped there on Jan. 15?

This passage, and article generally, raises several points worth discussing. One is on the right-ness and wrong-ness of an action, and invites normative judgments to be made based on our intuitions of this situation for what the cruise passengers should do, or have done. Here we could say, for instance, what a virtuous person would do in such a circumstance, or what the moral law requires of the cruise ship passengers, if at all. A second point worth elaborating on, albeit briefly, is how we as human beings negotiate discourses of power, knowledge, and subjectivity to rationalize our moral intuitions about such complex situations.

Two important phrases are provided upon which characterizes the dilemma. The first is how docking in Haiti “seems worse” and the second is, that it is “too soon [to holiday in Haiti] and too close [to land within geographical proximity of a humanitarian crisis]”. Both phrases represent introspective, intuitive, emotional, yet moral, evaluations. But why are these ambiguous statements intuitively understood? Professor Jon Haidt, a social psychologist who examines moral intuitions, states in the piece:

There is a world of difference between near and far…just as there is between staying on the ship and stepping onto the beach. The difference, in the human mind, is not really about the practical. It’s very much about symbolic relations.

For Haidt, our moral intuitions about situations, objects, and people are based on our symbolic relationship to them.  More so, our subjective interpretation – and experience – of these symbolic relationships in the world occur in, and are shaped by, the brain. Archer picks up this point and mentions some of the neurobiological foundations of how we as humans experience sympathy, empathy, callousness, and rationalization – emotions which connect and help us make sense of these relations. These emotions are believed to arise in areas of the brain referred to as “the pain matrix” (I reported on this set of structures in a previous post). John Decety from the University of Chicago explains that human beings have adapted neurobiologically to mitigate feelings of discomforting moral intuitions, and rationalize the decided course of action:

…You can either help, ignore, or reappraise. “That’s what people do on the cruise,” he says. “They reappraise: ‘I bring money, I bring jobs there,’ they say, ‘so it’s okay.’ We have this very plastic brain that is adapted to different situations and the way we appraise situations.”

But what does “too soon and too close” mean? Intuitively we may agree with the appraisal that since the earthquake was only 12 days ago, it may have been too soon for the cruise ship to dock in Haiti. Moreover, docking where they did could be assessed as as too close to the crisis. Humanitarian duties and obligations aside, what are the boundaries of “soon” and “close”? How do people arrive at those appraisals? Perhaps this would make for an interesting experiment. One could ask members of the public how they interpret and appraise ordinary language concepts of ‘too soon’ and ‘too close’ when presented with vignettes describing situations of humanitarian suffering as a result of a natural disaster. Examining these public intuitions may help provide deeper insight on how moral appraisals of concepts and situations shape intentionality.

Any thoughts about this?

On a separate but related note, the Global Bioethics Blog recently had a post entitled “Wrong and Right in Haiti” decrying the medical coverage as being unethical in Haiti. The post (and embedded links) not only raise questions concerning the ethical reporting of news, and medical  events in particular, but how vulnerable people and their stories are portrayed during times of crisis.

Although we do not endorse any specific humanitarian agencies or non-governmental organizations here at the Core, many reputable agencies and organizations are readily accepting donations for emergency relief efforts in Haiti.


3 thoughts on “Haiti, Cruise Ships, and Moral Intuitions

  1. By all means run around asking members of the general public what is ‘Too soon’ and ‘Too close’ for commercial activities to resume in the same country where a disaster has occured. Their answers would be devoid of meaning. Ask the workers at Labadee, who have families to feed. I’m sure they’d be only to happy to see their jobs disappear thanks to a tragedy over 60 miles away. They have a right to continued employment just as much as Daniel Buchman (or anyone else).

  2. I think out of the 3 courses of action, staying on the boat, or ignoring, are not the best things to do, even if pyschologically it seems justified. Even if it doesn’t seem justified many may do it to steer clear of any potential discourse, in the mind or otherwise.

    In an ideal situation a person would carry on their holiday with an empathetic, open mind.

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