On the Ethics of Travel

Laura Nelson
10 min readJun 28, 2023
Wikimedia Commons (Delmi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have always been ambivalent about travel at best and terrified of it at worst. Part of this is due to my reflexive worrying and catastrophizing whenever I depart. Did I shut the coffee maker off? Did I lock both locks on the front door? Did I remember to pack my Synthroid? Did I leave the car headlights on in the long-term parking lot at JFK? This paranoia subsides a day or two after arriving at my destination, but it kicks up again a day or two before I leave for home. Will my landlord’s building spring a gas leak, causing an explosion while I am driving or flying back? Am I heading into a local outbreak of a more virulent Covid-23? Are a squadron of Proud Boys mobilizing for an anti-trans offensive, and are at this moment sequestered in the bushes outside my home? While I appreciate a change of scene, I have come to accept that I am far more comfortable in familiar surroundings: certainly not a hermit or shut-in, but perfectly okay with sitting in my kitchen sipping tea and reading a book as the rest of the world whizzes by outside my window.

For this reason, I was eager to read “The Case Against Travel” by the University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard in last week’s The New Yorker: as someone with misgivings about the practice, I anticipated an epiphany of sorts that made explicit my low-key paranoia. However, I was mistaken, sorely disappointed at an account of travel-as-a-vice that I believe misses the point at almost every turn.

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Her argument runs roughly like this. The kind of travel that counts as a bad thing, and thus conducive to vice, is not a matter of necessity or duty (flying to a relative’s funeral or for business), or to advance one’s understanding of art or culture or go to university, but in pursuit of an exciting experience, and when one finishes the trip, one has achieved a kind of goal, a mark on one’s “been there, done that” checklist.

One could argue that Callard conflates travel as a genus with the species “tourism” and counter “What’s wrong with tourist travel?” Plenty, Callard claims:

Travel gets branded as an achievement: see interesting places, have interesting experiences, and become interesting people. Is that what it really is? . . . “A tourist is a temporarily leisured person who voluntarily visits a place away from home for the purpose of…

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Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.