Can Traveling Make You a Better Person?
Disclaimer: These publications were written by each author in his/her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in these articles are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the University of Virginia nor the University of Virginia's Guatemala Initiative.
The Value of Travel
When one commits to an action, especially after thinking about the action, usually there is a reason behind the action. There are many habitual actions wherein there may be very little cognitive thought (watching the next cued episode on Netflix, commuting to work daily on the same train, brushing your teeth, etc.). These habitual actions can be differentiated from actions which require planning, motivation, reflection, and valuation.
Planning a trip into territory you have previously never been to requires this form of conscious thought. Whether the motivation for the trip is to go on vacation, to volunteer, to explore, or anywhere inbetween -- the brain relies on different brain areas (mainly cortical structures) (Miller & Cohen, 2001) to make the idea of travel a reality.
During my travels in Guatemala I encountered hundreds of foreigners from around the world. Many of those I met tended to be from WEIRD nations (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) (Diamond, 2012). Moreover, whenever I met one of these travelers there would generally be some association made between how open-minded they were and their experience traveling. Specifically, many travelers would explain how important it was to travel to “understand” other cultures and value “diversity.” Interestingly, many of these travelers would generally spend a week or two (at the most) in a Latin American country before moving on.
From what I observed it was very common for these backpackers to follow a particular path. Many backpackers would read about the experiences of others on sites such as hostelworld or tripadvisor and use these forums as methods to plan out a safe and cohesive travel route. Specifically in Guatemala many backpackers would gather to discuss various routes to make it to tourist hotspots (Tikal, Semuc Champey, Antigua, etc.).
Perhaps most interesting to me, many backpackers tended to form an association between their ability to be footloose and their open-mindedness. I overheard countless conversations about how “the justice system was better in Country X” or “the electoral process was rigged in Country Y.” It was common to hear how one person’s experience defined an entire portion of a country. Even more common, many backpackers would lament how few Americans traveled around the world and therefore, Americans by nature would be close-minded and ignorant.
Traveling, Open-Mindedness, and Acceptance
After hearing travelers discuss the value of their own travels time after time, I noticed that there was some sense of self-aggrandizement being associated with travel.
Essentially, the argument went like this:
Traveling exposes a person to new experiences and ideas.
New experiences and ideas increase the probability of open-mindedness.
Those who are more open-minded are generally more accepting of others.
In our WEIRD world, it is generally agreed upon that being more accepting is a good thing.
Conclusion: Traveling makes you a good person.
There may be some who include a caveat in the aforementioned argument. Some may believe that the first premise must rely on a subsequent premise, that the type of travel must be for beneficent reasons. Whether this is a necessary prerequisite or not the general conclusion remains the same, traveling is good.
The Luxury of Travel
Countless conversations with travelers led to similar conclusions, having spent months to years traveling across various countries they had broadened their horizons. I have little doubt that traveling to different countries has the capability to lead to open-mindedness, especially when one does so with a positive intention. My qualm is a different one, that travel necessarily makes someone a “better person.”
During my time in Totonicapan I would often ask many Guatemalans whether they had been to the tourist hotspots. The answer was almost always no. Many of the Guatemalans I met, especially in rural areas, had only known their immediate Department. It was very rare to meet a Guatemalan who traveled. When I would ask a native Guatemalan why they didn’t travel, the answer was unanimous--lack of money.
Financial stability is almost always a prerequisite to being able to travel, one which many Guatemalans did not have. Did this mean that Guatemalans were less open-minded? Were Guatemalans morally reprehensible for not seeing how the rest of the world operated?
In experiencing one place and time we do just that, we are present in that moment. A Guatemalan who has spent his whole life in Totonicapan can encounter new experiences and adventures daily. Like a scientists with a microscope, spending that time within that area may even allow that person to experience more of what it is like to be in that one place.
The plethora of experiences is not necessitated by how many places we travel to, but instead, how many times we begin to look at our experiences with a novel perspective.
The Infinitude of an Experience and the Limitations of Language
The real question, for me, is the following: “What does it mean to truly understand a place?”
To visit Guatemala for six months, six years, or sixty years, I have doubts that any one person can understand the place. The very question seems loaded with vaguary. Does one have to understand everything from the regional ecosystem to the geopolitical struggles?
To say that one person has traveled to a place is just that, they have traveled, during one moment in time. The only guarantee is that a human being moved in space and time.
Sharing conversations and pictures of experiences from around the world is one way to engage in a human pastime, storytelling. Just as our ancestors likely sat in caves lit by flickering dimly lit fire, conveying experience through whatever medium they could, we continue to do the same.
The important thing to recognize is the limitation of representing experience. Whether it is through a cave-painting, a polaroid, or a full-fledged fish tale, we are all limited in our ability to truly convey that experience. Moreover, as we practice telling these stories they risk becoming stale, rote, and disconnected from the very qualia of the event.
This is not to say that traveling is bad, nor that storytelling is useless -- I personally value both immensely. Instead, I have reached this conclusion: That open-mindedness does not necessitate geographical travel, but rather, traveling into a new perspective. The world is ever-changing and whether one remains in Fargo, North Dakota, or travels the world their whole life, open-mindedness relies on us altering the angles from which we view our world.
Is It Good to be Open-Minded?
In our WEIRD world there is general agreement that open-mindedness and acceptance of others is a good thing. Specifically, the United States has prided itself on freedom of expression and individuality -- you may not like what I have to say but I have a constitutional right to say it.
Prima facie, open-mindedness does not appear to necessitate morally acceptable behavior. One could imagine an extremely open-minded citizen living in a region terrorized by genocide whom does not take action because they wish to consider all viewpoints. Conversely, one could imagine an extremely dogmatic religious figure who adamantly opposes LGBTQ rights but feeds the poor daily.
Open-mindedness is the ability to consider viewpoints other than your own. While this may be a step towards reflection it appears suspect that there remains moral valuation to this form of cognitive processing. Like a ball being tossed across a volleyball court, lobing a thought back and forth across cerebral hemispheres hardly appears to have a moral aspect to it.
Action Guided by Virtue
To me, it appears that this question relies on a deeper question: Does moral behavior require intention guided by moral virtues?
I believe it does. To act ethically one must intend to do so. As discussed earlier, the action requires some form of planning, motivation, reflection, and valuation. Finally, this moral action must be made manifest in the world in a tangible and effective way
So can travelling be moral? I believe it has the potential to be. Is it the best use of resources to accomplish a goal guided by morality -- this depends on one’s metaethical basis for action. It is outside the scope of this discourse to decide upon the value of one moral action versus another. Nevertheless, it is this author’s opinion that action can have moral consequences and travel, being an action, has the potential to be moral.
While traveling can be a moral action, it does not necessarily make one person morally “better” than another. Instead, it is through reflection, attention, contemplation, and attempts at various perspective-taking that we can begin to start the true traveling, the traveling within. It is with this intention, guided by virtue, that we can begin to foster action guided by our virtues.
Diamond, J. (2012). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies?. Penguin.
Miller, E. K., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annual review of neuroscience, 24(1), 167-202.