Gaining Some Distance

January 18, 2010

The Guardian has this interesting story on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that docked in Haiti today… to enjoy a beach barbecue.

Sixty miles from Haiti‘s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.


The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened”.

“I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

“It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving,” said another. “I can’t imagine having to choke down a burger there now.”

I’ll confess, it seems extraordinarily crass for Royal Caribbean to park their luxury liner only 60 miles from the site of such incredible devastation. I might even go so far as to say that it’s wrong.

Much as I feel this way, it’s hard to offer a good reason why.

Indeed, I myself had a few friends over for dinner on Friday. We had a grand old time, boozing it up and noshing on tasty rich-person treats. We scarcely even mentioned Haiti as we gobbled up homemade calamari. Imagine!…

Of course, I’m in Colorado, so I could easily lean on the old slow-boat-to-Haiti routine. My helpful hands wouldn’t be welcome there, the burden of getting to Haiti would be too great, I have other obligations here, I have a child, there’s nothing I could do to help. Pass the wine please.

That’s all true, of course, but in this age of abundant monotonic value chits and their near-efficient electronic redistribution highway — I speak, of course, of my dollars and the internet donation infrastructure — I could easily offer help without lifting so much as my mouse.

I think there’s a morally relevant difference between the two scenarios, but I’m sure that many ethicists would beg to differ. Many folks would say that there is no morally relevant difference, that whether tragedy is local or in some far-off land, the obligation to help is equally strong. We should as much as we can to lift people out of their terrible predicaments.

But then, supposing I do help, am I free then to return to my revelry with my friends? Certainly, there can’t be anything wrong with having a dinner party after having made a small (or even a large) donation to the relief effort. If that’s true, then oughtn’t it also to be true that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with having a beach party on Haiti’s shores after bringing a few (or maybe even many) supplies on my cruise ship? (One of my colleagues, no doubt, would say that we should do what we can to help like crazy, and then, as soon as that’s over, we should party like crazy. But meh, he’s crazy.)

I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s perfectly permissible to go on living our lives as though little has happened in Haiti, though I do think we have an obligation to help. But I also think that having a beach party 60 miles from the epicenter of an earthquake that has killed approximately 100,000 people, while there are still people fighting over food, water, and shelter, while there are bodies burning in the street… that’s insensitive and, I think, wrong. It’s kind of like starting up a serious romantic relationship a day or two after your partner has died, except that in the latter case, the distance is temporal and not geographical.  True, the partner will never find out, and never be hurt by it… but out of respect for the dead, the grieving, and the dying, couldn’t we hold the beach party somewhere else?

Don’t know. Am I crazy for holding this view?

(Whoops. Wrong logo.)


  1. […] A member of a listserv that I am on pointed out some interesting statistics. To date, donations to Haiti from the  United States have topped a whopping $210 million. In the first four days after the earthquake, $150 million was quickly raised. I think this speaks to the generosity of Americans, despite some insensitive actions that Ben Hale highlighted today. […]

  2. No, you’re not crazy. The insensitivity by the cruise line (and some of its passengers) is galling.

    Many years ago, when I was a teenager, some close relatives took my brother and I on a cruise to the Caribbean, in which Haiti was the last stop. The images of what I saw and experienced then (in a disaster-free zone, for Haiti, since Baby doc ruled then) were so disturbing that it made me feel terrible for even being on the cruise. It was my first real exposure to in your-face poverty and inequity and the images have stayed with me since–including the disgusting scenes of cruise passengers throwing coins in the water (as the boat was pulling up and then departing) to watch the Haitians dive into the water from their rickety boats, to retrieve the coins.

    As for today’s cruise passengers, I don’t know how anyone could enjoy themselves at a beach party so close in proximity to unspeakable tragedy still very much happening.

  3. I don’t think you’re crazy, because of this. A lot of people have expressed to me similar experiences. I think so much suffering makes us question how we live our lives and if our comfort and privilege is warranted. It’s a question of making one’s life worth wile. Plus, we get the sense that there are so many Haiti’s we don’t know about but that exist, maybe slowly silent agonizing Hiati’s of everyday poverty which as humans we are called to do something about. I think the experience of inadequacy is legit, and should be addressed. Not opposed to a nice party, I think the nagging conscience will go if at the party we know that our life is dedicated, truly, to the good of mankind. I know I could do better. The cruise thing just makes it more disgusting.

  4. Great post. I’ll offer a different view.

    Imagine that Royal Caribbean decided not to stop at Labadee Beach following the earthquake and just chugged on back to Miami (like Keith I too visited that beach on a cruise with my family when I was in college). Would that be better? For whom? In what way?

    I’d argue that the symbolism of stopping or not stopping in Haiti is all about us, not the earthquake victims. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that everyone of the victims cares as much about that cruise ships stops as they do about Ben’s dinner party.

    We care about the cruise ships stops because of what we think it says about us and our values. When we criticize the cruise company are saying, wouldn’t it be nice if we all cared more.

    This issue appears to have a lot in common with issues like building on the site of the twin towers or even restarting the Marshall football team right after the 1970 plane crash (just saw the movie last night).

    I am comfortable concluding that there are strong arguments for and against the visits to Labadee Beach. It’s not for me. But I would not go so far as to say that it is wrong for someone else to do so (Ricardo, cue the moral relativism of pragmatism — but it is not;-). Insensitive, looks bad, sure. But wrong? I don’t think so.

    There are a lot of other choices that we all make that are equally insensitive, but the don’t look bad because no one sees them. So perhaps pointing to Royal Caribbean and saying tsk tsk makes us feel a bit better about those other things.

    Two cents worth!

    • Yeah Roger, you know me, smells of pragmatism. So you think for something to be immoral somebody else needs to know about it, see it? It needs to be practically reprehensible?

      I think you are right, very sharp, to point out that its more about us than the earthquake victims. Its about our values. But to tell you the truth, I think the disgust we feel at the cruise ship is our conscience screaming at us that the way we lead our lives is immoral in some way. I, and nobody else, can really judge another’s conscience and life, but I think in many cases this accusation of the conscience is signalling something true. If I live very fortunately in the USA, have a comfortable life (with struggles of course) and know 80% of the world is severely suffering from poverty (material- but I will count mental and spiritual) and do nothing about it, I think to a certain extent this is immoral.

      The world is full of suffering at all levels of poverty and I think that if I am ofrtunate and have gifts and qualities it is my human duty to do something. Doesn’t mean I need to go to Haiti or Africa, maybe its serving teh poor in Boulder, offering intellectual gifts by teaching, caring for the sick in Denver. Basically a sense of mission and service, changing the world, to the fullest of one’s ability. If we are not doing that to the fullest our conscience will accuse us. Mine did, and has moved me to do more.

      • Roger asks if one is justified dancing gaily at a funeral. Contrary to his assertion, it is not all about the dancers, but also about the mourners. One has an obligation not to rub it in.

        The cruise line has an ongoing relationship with Hati. Their ships stop there frequently. A large part of the problem is that they did not get ahead of the issue. They did make donations, but it is not clear that they did so BEFORE the story broke. Their ethical and commercial interests required becoming major partners in the recovery. Callousness is remembered.

        IEHO another major issue is that they put their passengers in a morally difficult position. They should have either canceled this visit (there will be others in the future) or structured it in a way that there was obviously plenty of opportunity to help in whatever way possible, with the ongoing rescue/ recovery effort.

      • Ricardo-

        You write: “So you think for something to be immoral somebody else needs to know about it, see it?”

        No. My point was quite the opposite — we often express outrage about morality when it is visible, yet that really shouldn’t matter.

      • Roger – sorry, I misunderstood your point. So we agree, it’s not about being seen or not, that doesn’t necessarily change the nature of a human act.

        What we still disagree is if the dancing on the beach is just insensitive or immoral. I think the act of partying close to a human disaster site is immoral, a morally bad act. Not just an insensitive goodish act.

  5. Read the comments at

    • Interesting stuff!

  6. It is important to recognize that the cruise line could have canceled a few visits (say for a month) before resuming them later on. In that way, avoiding the immorality of dancing on the graves of the dead, while preserving the economic benefit of a long term relationship. Even better they could have seriously pushed resources into the local area near Cap Haitian which refugees from Port au Prince were fleeing to.

    It is the shallowness of Roger’s analysis that offends, although, to be fair, many at the Nation of Why Not site linked to above tried the same. To an extent, this sort of thing has come to the fore with the popularity of Freakonomical thinking and the drive towards contrarianism in academia.

  7. Let Eli disagree with Ricardo. In this case it IS the nature of being seen that makes the act immoral. Those landing from the ship were being seen by the workers at Labadee who were serving them. Even if those Haitians had not lost family and friends, did not have family and friends who lost everything in the quake, the word would have spread to those who had. Ben errs in putting the emphasis on respect for the dead. The dead are dead (well, maybe not in Haiti, in which case Royal Cruise Lines had better watch out). It is the living mourning the dead and their losses who deserve and need respect.

  8. Maybe I’ll cut it a bit differently. I don’t think it’s the “being seen” that’s the matter either. If you cheat on your partner while she lies on her deathbed, or even moments after she has died (though she has implored you (a) to date again but (b) to mourn her death), isn’t there something disrespectful about that?

    Seems to me that respect is doing the work, not being seen.

  9. Certainly dancing on the beach near the carnage SEEMS disrespectful. Is it actually wrong, if the offended party never finds out? It does feel odd to hold that such an action is wrong only in virtue of its effects on others. Maybe it feels wrong because of what it reveals about the agent(s) in question – namely, that they lack respect for others?

  10. Ah but the bearers of drinks and shampoo are the relatives of those lying under the rubble. They will know.

  11. Eli Rabett,

    Certainly in the actual case of the cruise ship, mistakes were made, disrespect was shown, and harm was done to many folks. I was asking the nerdy question whether doing a disrespectful deed when no one will know about it (save oneself) is wrong.

  12. a different version of a similar phenomenon:


  13. Themselves Accept,emphasis miss investigate code look situation merely slightly move gun neighbour bedroom since baby tour session much army bind measure border previous current threat very ensure sea expenditure laugh purpose spirit conclusion significance hard investigate love drink current politics detail growth boat total reference social second terrible again connect noise final country drop attend manage major start appointment ancient cabinet concentrate light stay reply urban possibility handle television east nevertheless drawing pub reading star love once study rest other receive selection son decide somebody place elderly kill wrong

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