Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Christopher Columbus Conundrum

The Columbus Day holiday presents our American society with a revealing conundrum. An increasing number of people regard Christopher Columbus to be more villain than hero, and are saying he should NOT be celebrated with a holiday. If this is so, on what basis do we judge him to be a villain?

That Columbus did and said some troubling things is pretty much beyond dispute. When Columbus landed in the Indies, he was met by a party of Arawaks, the native inhabitants of the land he claimed for Spain. In his journal, Columbus wrote of the Arawaks: "They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

Indeed, Columbus did subjugate many of the Arawak, and he didn't stop there. His treatment of the native inhabitants of North America set a pattern that would in many ways define European colonization and exploitation of the Americas. Bartolom√© de las Casas, a Catholic priest and contemporary critic of Columbus, wrote: “While I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months...Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation ... in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk.”

Understandably, many today find Christopher Columbus a deplorable figure and consider the Columbus Day holiday to be highly objectionable. Still, such moral assessments of Columbus beg a question that is too often ignored in our society: What is the basis of any such moral judgment?

American culture today is feverishly resistant to any kind of "imposed" moral system, especially if such a system has any religious roots to it. Consider the debate over abortion. Most of those who defend abortion rights do so on the grounds of emphasizing the importance of personal autonomy and a rejection of any attempt to impose a religious-based morality on the rest of society. The irony is that those same themes were echoed in the defense of slavery in pre-Civil War America as well as many episodes or situations where Native Americans were mistreated. If religion is to be cast aside as a source for morality -- if indeed we are to set aside any objective system of morality - and we are to instead celebrate individual autonomy, then it's difficult for me to understand how anyone can rationally judge the actions or beliefs of another person, such as Columbus.

If morality is determined by each individual, then it was completely understandable for Columbus to ignore critics such as las Casas. What's more, why should he let a native's cry for mercy or freedom dissuade him from his quest for profit? Sure, the native inhabitant had a life and had goals and desires, but if each person can ultimately determine his or her own moral code, then it comes down to an issue of power, not ethics. If Columbus had the desire and the power to enslave people for his own purposes, then why should he not do so? Why must he yield to someone else's morality? After all, he did what he thought was right. If you're someone who supports individual-based morality, you have NO sensible or judicious grounds upon which to judge Christopher Columbus.

On the other hand, if morality is determined by community or culture, then how do we rationally decide WHICH community or society gets the final say? Why should, say, the Arawaks get to decide what's right or wrong? If individuals determine morality, then (as we saw above) it comes down to power, not ethics. The same would logically be true for communities, would it not? If one community has the desire and the ability to subjugate another, so be it.

Some may counter that, in the case of conflicting societal values, size matters. They may say that a large number of people who believe a certain way should enlighten others who feel differently. But how does that follow? Are moral questions determined by a vote or by public opinion polls?

There's also the issue of time. Since Columbus' level of public approval has fluctuated throughout the last few centuries, does that mean a person's status of hero or villain should be based on what year it is and what generation happens to be living at that time?  So, if the Spanish in 1492 believed slavery was appropriate, but today believe slavery is wrong, does that mean slavery was okay in 1492 but wrong today? Is the morality of slavery dependent on the times?

Whether we're talking about the treatment of Native Americans, the sanctity of human life, sexual ethics, the definition of the family, or any other moral question, it makes NO RATIONAL SENSE to say, on the one hand, that ethical principles are based entirely on individuals and/or communities -- and to then turn around and pronounce moral judgments on the actions or beliefs of others. It's intellectually incoherent to make ANY kind of moral judgment on anyone or anything if morality itself is based on individual choice or public opinion. And thus...

Without an objective, external, moral referent, no one can make any kind of rational assessment of Christopher Columbus. Period. 

I don't write this to defend Columbus. On the contrary, I believe much of what Columbus did was reprehensible. But my moral compass isn't set to public opinion or individual preference. When you have an objective standard (as I do), it's simpler (not always easy, but simpler) to come to a moral conclusion. And that is certainly the case with Columbus. Enslaving people against their will is wrong today and it was wrong in 1492. That's an objective moral standard which Christopher Columbus violated, and thus his actions were immoral. But if you remove objective morality from the equation, then no such judgment can be rendered. And, in that case, we may as well celebrate a Columbus Day holiday, because no one can dispute that his actions were monumentally consequential.

So, the next time you're tempted to make a judgment about Christopher Columbus or anyone else, ask yourself what is the BASIS of that judgment. Such an intellectual and philosophical exercise, on your part, will make Columbus Day worthwhile.