My husband and I are now retired and are looking forward to making some long-postponed, once-in-a-lifetime trips. Unfortunately, the country at the very top of our bucket list has an authoritarian government and a poor human rights record. We’re finding it difficult to evaluate the cost/benefit of our possible travel there. Our tourism dollars would directly support the local tourism industry and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods. But we’re concerned that it would indirectly support the regime in power, as well. How do we evaluate the ethical implications? — Laura R.
From the Ethicist:
The case against visiting isn’t so much that you’re actually going to be prolonging a bad regime (any effect would be microscopic); rather, it’s that there’s something inherently regrettable about contributing to the welfare of wrongdoers. Weighing in favor of your trip, as you say, is your direct support of the people in the tourism trade who will earn your dollars. The countries with the poorest human rights records typically deny their citizens both freedom of the press and effective democratic participation, and this makes it unreasonable to hold those citizens responsible for what their governments do; in rewarding them, you’re not rewarding those responsible for the state’s repressive ways.
If these were the only relevant issues, the case for going would be clearly much stronger than the case for staying away. Most of the other ethically relevant issues weigh in favor of going, too. You will benefit yourselves, not only by being enriched by an unfamiliar culture and experiencing new places and ways of life but also by deepening your familiarity with the wrongs perpetrated by the government. This, in turn, will give you both the incentive and the knowledge to engage with others about the issue.
But suppose there were currently a boycott in place that had support from credible representatives of the people of that country and was having, or was likely to have, positive effects in improving conditions there. If that were the case, you should honor the boycott. It can be good to participate in a political process even when — as with voting — your personal contribution has a minuscule effect on the outcome.
A Bonus Question
My mother is 57, and I am her only daughter. She has an undiagnosed mental-health condition (she has symptoms of borderline-personality disorder: intense fear of abandonment, mood swings, a pattern of unstable relationships) and about 13 years ago heard God tell her that she should not do any paid work and be a traveling evangelist. She wants to be looked after and to do “God’s work.” She let go of her car and apartment and has spent the years since living transiently, usually in strangers’ homes and in motels. (She currently lives in California.) I have spent thousands on her living expenses over the years, but this is unsustainable. It’s stressful and frustrating, as she won’t consider going to a shelter to get help or finding a job to help subsidize her living expenses. I have a hard time establishing boundaries with her and end up caving in and bailing her out when she is on the brink of sleeping on the streets. And I’m running out of money. The other issue is that I live abroad with my child and husband, and my mom can’t come stay with us. I love my mother very much, and I don’t want to abandon her. What responsibility do I have as the lone child of a parent who won’t help herself? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
When someone relies on us for support, we’re normally entitled to set reasonable conditions for that support. In this case, reasonable conditions might include having a psychiatric evaluation. But your mother’s convictions mean she is unlikely to agree, and you have no way of getting her to do so.
The difficulty is that her behavior doesn’t look like the actions of a responsible autonomous agent, someone you can reasonably hold accountable in this manner. Yet even when people are in the grips of a delusion, their behavior can sometimes be shaped with incentives and disincentives. You should tell her clearly what you are and aren’t willing to do, negotiating reasonable conditions. Your mother is entitled to live her life; she isn’t entitled to derail yours.
In these circumstances, you might decide to offer her a small fixed amount of money at regular intervals; you can also put her in touch with local organizations that can help your mother find housing and direct her toward mental-health services. The rest is up to her.
Last week’s question was from a woman who wanted to sell a family heirloom she’d been gifted. She wrote, “I was recently gifted a family heirloom — a century-old five-carat diamond ring. It is most likely worth six figures. I was shocked; I am not very close with the relative who gave me the ring, by his choice. … My husband and I are newly married, and we find ourselves thinking about the value of this ring and how it could change our lives. A down payment on an apartment? A college fund for future children? And so on. We neither come from money nor make much money. If we sell this ring, it is a once-in-a-lifetime windfall. I’m worried my relative would want the ring back if he knew I was considering selling it. … what are my rights regarding this gift, and what explanation do I owe?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “First, a gift is a gift, and this one had no explicit strings attached. There was perhaps a background assumption that it would be appreciated for its sentimental value; selling it shows that its sentimental value for you is less than the giver supposed. … Second, though, it’s worth reflecting on what the giver’s motivations were. You say that you haven’t been close, that relationships with his part of the family have been fraught. Maybe he hoped to remedy this situation, in some measure. … Either way, it would be courteous to tell him that you decided to sell the ring (I’m assuming that’s your wish) and to explain why — e.g., because doing so would provide the down payment on a new home for your new marriage. Telling him openly should help convey that you aren’t doing anything wrong, which would be less obvious if it came up only later. … If you say nothing, your relationship is more likely to be damaged were he to find out later than had you been open about it.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
She should tell the whole family that she is selling it. There might be someone in the family who appreciates the connection and is willing to pay market price. — Sara
I agree with the Ethicist that the gift of the ring contained no restrictions or instructions and therefore the recipient is free to do as she pleases. However if and when she discusses the possibility of a sale with the giver, she should offers a 10% donation to a charity of the giver’s choice. After all, this is an unexpected and unearned windfall. — Richard
If the value of the five-carat ring is in the stone itself, sell the stone and replace it with a man-made diamond. That way the ring stays as an heirloom, and a symbol of the family, but the value can be utilized for a better life today. — Nancy
I disagree with the advice to tell the giver of the ring of any plan to sell it. I don’t know the giver, of course, but in my experience, very wealthy people can be completely oblivious to the financial reality of those less well off. If the giver had intended this gift to be of financial benefit to the recipient, he may have expressed that. It doesn’t sound as though he did, but rather expected the recipient to keep and wear it as a family heirloom. Telling him she wants to sell it could trigger an ugly scene, possibly leading him to try to reclaim it. A gift is a gift, as the Ethicist noted. Once given without conditions, as this was, the recipient is free to do with it what is best for her. I think she should sell it with a clear conscience. — Lisa
If I were the questioner, I would write a thank-you letter to the relative who gave her this gift and enclose a lovely photograph of her wearing the ring. Her gratitude is all that is necessary. She should frame a copy of the photograph for her wall with the item’s history and the story of how she received it printed on the back. The family heirloom has been commemorated. She can then do what she needs to do with her ring. — Susan