Bryan Caplan  

The Cultural Relativism of Columbus Apologists

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Critics of multi-culturalism often mock its proponents for (a) cultural relativism and (b) disrepecting Columbus. The problem, as I've explained before, is that Columbus was a pioneer of slavery and barbarism. The only way to excuse his behavior is to say "Oh, you can't judge Columbus by our standards. In those days, people thought that slavery was OK. Everyone was doing it."

If that excuse makes sense to you, you're a cultural relativist. Change your heroes, or change your meta-ethics!

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
mgroves writes:

I don't know if anyone considers him a hero. I consider him an important historical figure and a man who changed the world as we know it. I always see so many attacks and far fewer defenses of Columbus.

I also don't see as many slavery/racist attacks on Robert Byrd and Thomas Jefferson either. I wonder why?

dearieme writes:

Or you could always be grown up about it and admire C's boldness, persistence, courage and skill while deploring some of his other characteristics. Is that so difficult? Heavens, it's not as if I'm suggesting that people be grown up about the sainted Founding Fathers.

KR writes:

I think if you thought that you would be "time-period relativist" not a cultural relativist.

I think it's totally reasonable to apply different standards to time periods. For example, we can't fault Ricardo for not applying the lessons of Keynes. Doing so would be ridiculous and not doing so wouldn't make me any kind of relativist.

Gary Rogers writes:

Bryan, you are sounding too much like a liberal college professor. It might be in your best interest to spend more time talking to people outside of academia. I still love your economic ideas, though, and look forward to your blog entries.

Unknown Healer writes:

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Frank Nuciforo writes:


I think it is a misguided notion. Columbus was in the employe of a nation that by all historic references represented the most egregious example of colonialism. Your outrage should be directed toward Queen Isabella who in her reign also expelled Jews and Muslims.

Dennis Mangan writes:

If we're talking cultural relativism, how will the people of the future judge some of our present-day practices? I can think of a few that are widespread that the future will judge harshly.

DJH writes:

Seven sentences and two massive errors in reasoning is impressive. mgroves and KR have eviscerated your argument without resort to a single exclamation point.

ZH writes:

I am not sure you could call Colmbus a "pioneer" of slavery and barbarism. Yes, technically he started the Atlantic slave trade, but what difference does it make where the slaves are coming from and going to. The only reason the Atlantic slave trade did not exist before Columbus is that there was no cross-Atlantic travel. Slavery has existed for as long as we have recorded history. Columbus was most definitely a practicioner of slavery, and on a large scale, but he was not a pioneer in that regard.

Barkley Rosser writes:

mgroves and other would-be defenders of Columbus.

Probably more serious than his starting the slave trade was his mass slaughter of the Indians in the Caribbean, wherever he went. None of this is defensible as being in self-defense either.

Neither Robert Byrd nor Thomas Jefferson initiated anything, although Jefferson practiced slavery and in his youth, Byrd advocated the racist views of the KKK. Neither is remotely even in the same dimension as Columbus on these scales.

BTW, I am willing to grant Columbus personal courage and all that. I am old enough to have been taught in elementary school about Columbus as a great hero. Still remember the drama of their ships trying to reach land and all that. Of course the big lie in those readings was the idea that somehow Columbus was "proving the earth was round." This was simple baloney. Everybody who knew anything about it knew the earth was round. The main issue was what was its size, and part of what made Columbus's voyage so dramatic was that he thought it was smaller than it is.

8 writes:

Should we change Columbus Day to Caboto Day, in honor of Giovanni Caboto, discoverer of North America?

dearieme writes:

"by all historic references represented the most egregious example of colonialism": what, compared to the invasions by the Steppe nomads into Europe, Southwest Asia and East Asia? Compared to Alexander, the Persians, the Romans; compared to the Northern Chinese into South China, or the Arabs into North Africa, Europe, the Near East, Persia, Central Asia and India. Are you quite sure?

GILMORE writes:

I vote for

"Amerigo Vespucci/Giovanni Caboto/Leif Erikson-Day"

Maybe then everyone will realize how dumb it is and move on to something worthwhile.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Who cares? We're all safer when the first class mail delivery monopoly takes a day off.

Troy Camplin writes:

One can also be a cultural relativist in an historical sense while insisting that people living today be capable of using moral judgement now that we know better. It's much more ridiculous to dehistoricize Columbus, judging him by standards and ethical norms that were not even available to him when he lived. Ethics evolves too, you know.

Gary Rogers writes:

I commented earlier, but did not have time to think through the reasons I feel the way I do. Now, with a little more time, I will add that I am bothered by this politically correct view of Columbus because it is framed in Marxist terms. In this view, Columbus was the oppressor and the Indians were the victims. This thinking leads to the false conclusion that to recognize the contribution of Columbus' voyage is to join the oppressors against the helpless. My opinion is that too much of the history taught in schools is framed this way. My opinion is also that the more people think in these terms, the more they are susceptible to irrational voter syndrome.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Of course, one could apply the same reasoning in reverse. Without caring much about Columbus one way or the other, one can despise cultural relativists exactly because they do not apply their own standards (or lack thereof) to Columbus.

Snorri Godhi writes:

...or, let's take somebody I do care about. Sure, Genghis Khan was a mass murderer, but the World is a better place because of him. (See "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford.) What have the cultural relativists ever done for the rest of the World??

Jose writes:

No apologist for Columbus am I, but to say that Columbus was personally responsible for the mass slaughter of natives wherever he went is giving him too much credit. The effects of contact were many, some with purpose and some unforseen, but certainly tragic to the native people of the Americas North, Central and South. In Puerto Rico, estimates are that within 75 - 100 years of the arrival of the Spanish, not one "full-blooded" Taino survived. Most probably they were killed by disease, then the stress of slavery, then the suppression of rebellion, and last intermarriage with the african slaves brought to replace them and with the Spaniards that subjugated them. It was a moral catastrophe of massive dimensions, and probably inevitable given the nature of the times.

jim mcclure writes:


The ancient Greeks offerred the world many civilizing ideas, yet they owned slaves. For an interesting book that in one part comments intelligently on this juxtaposition have a look at: "Who Killed Homer"; its a good one, but the author gets a little carried away toward the end as far as how colleges should be run.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record today, there is a column by Matthew Bowden of the Any Rand Institute. He says that Columbus Day is all about Western Civilization, listing Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, as well as John Locke and the Founding Fathers, not to mention Rockefeller and Bill Gates. That's right, we are to celebrate Columbus Day to remember Aristotle, Einstein, and Bill Gates. I hope that they are happy about this.

Troy Camplin writes:

I htink the point the Ayn Rand institute is trying to make is that COlumbus spread Western civilization because of his voyages. If we accept the premise that Western civilization is the best the world has ever had to offer, then there is little question about the greatness of what Columbus did.

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