“What do you fly from New York to Calcutta?”, my friend asked me. “Emirates”, I said. He chastised me, “How can you give your money to them? Emirates is subsidized by Dubai, which is as rich as it is because it’s been exploiting slave labor for years. You’re basically supporting slavery by flying Emirates.”
My parents live in Calcutta, so I make this trip relatively often. I like flying Emirates. The seats are spacious and comfortable, the flight attendants unfailingly nice, the food remarkably good. I usually go to the airport spa during my stop-over at Dubai. In my opinion, it’s the best experience you can have on a painfully long flight.
Does this mean that I value my personal good over the good of others less fortunate than me? Looks like it. Sadly, so does most of the world. And most of the time, we do this without even thinking about it. While picking up that bargain t-shirt, how many of us think about the sweat shop in which it was made? And yet, it’s never been easier to look up the labor and environmental records of companies. Please do it. I promise you’ll find that, of the stores you patronize regularly, some are better than others.
I read an article recently about the de facto segregated schools of NYC. Hispanics and African-Americans disproportionately attend schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, with few resources and poor academic standards. This makes it even harder for them to improve their economic lot later in life. The article was written by an upper middle-class mother, who made the surprising choice of sending her little daughter, not to their affluent neighborhood school, but to a predominantly African-American school a few miles away. She wanted to actually walk the talk about diversity. This is so remarkable as to be newsworthy. Hardly anyone chooses to do something like that. Are human beings fundamentally thoughtless and selfish?
If you go back far enough, almost every country had slaves, or their equivalent. During the days of the Roman Empire, the luxurious life of the elite (Romans) rested on the backs of the slave labor of their prisoners-of-war. The Empire lasted for 2000 years, and finally fell because of this inequity. Today, for the first time in history, we have made the technological progress to be on the cusp of ensuring a privileged life for all of humanity. With the advent of artificial intelligence and robots and electromechanical laboring machines, the day may not be too far away when we no longer exploit others for our own benefit. Of course, the robot-as-pathos (as opposed to the robot-as-menace) school of science fiction paints a world where AI has progressed to the point where it is immoral for us to exploit robots!
For now, though, let us worry about our fellow human beings. Let us think before making our choices.