Bryan Caplan  

The Bribes of Columbus

Henderson on Piketty, Part 2... Fawcett's Liberalism...
Christopher Columbus, a slaver and a murderer, exemplifies Western civilization at its worst.  Out of all the efforts to excuse his crimes, the most bizarre I've heard goes something like this:
As a resident of the modern United States, you have immensely benefited from everything Columbus did.  If Europeans hadn't dispossessed the New World's native inhabitants, you wouldn't enjoy the comfort and security you take for granted.  Given this debt of gratitude you owe Columbus, you are morally required to hold your tongue - if not actively defend the man.
Mainstream philosophers' main objection to this argument, I suspect, is that it proves too much.  As the literature on the non-identity problem emphasizes, none of us would even exist if any major historical event prior to our conception had been different.  Even the descendents of Incan royalty are better off because of Columbus, because if Columbus hadn't existed, their ancestors would have had sex under slightly (or greatly) different circumstances, so their modern heirs never would have been conceived in the first place.

A fine point, but it misses the deeper absurdity of the "show Columbus proper gratitude" argument.  Suppose you're on a jury for a blatantly guilty murderer.  If he tries to bribe you to acquit him, you should obviously refuse.  But what if the murderer gives you a bribe you can't refuse?  For example, the murderer could loudly donate to your favorite charity.  Are you then morally obliged to reciprocate by letting him get away with murder?

Whatever benefits the living now enjoy thanks to Columbus are morally equivalent to such a bribe.  We don't have the power to undo whatever the man did for us before we were born.  We do however have the power to render an honest verdict despite his jury tampering.  And that is precisely what integrity requires.  Whatever Columbus did for us, the verdict is Guilty.

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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Why was Columbus exemplifying Western civilisation? Is not slavery and murder a feature of human societies generally across history?

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

The validity of his arguments aside, I was disappointed that Mr. Caplan could not provide us with a real quote to attack. If there were a ever a strawman, he would look like this!

Jas Smith writes:

Lorenzo, I don't think the idea is that only exemplars of Western civilization enslaved and murdered. Obviously not. It's just what Caplan said, that Columbus exemplified Western civilization. It's impossible to understand him except as a product of 15th-century European culture. Although other cultures also achieved heroic feats of exploration, what we now call the Age of Exploration was obviously a Western project. It marked the beginning of the West's conquest of the whole world, with all that implied for good and evil. And the crimes Caplan describes were a part of that.

I doubt many people are really viscerally invested in the myth of Columbus' innocence. Among other things, he's not strictly speaking a part of American nationalist mythology. Rather, his defenders associate criticism of him with a position with respect to contemporary American racial and cultural divisions—a position to which they are viscerally opposed.

Hugh writes:

Christopher Columbus is the poster boy for the Open Borders movement, opening up the Americas as he did.

Bryan, you should be proud of this guy.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Jas: if the murder and slavery are historically common among human civilisations (which they were) but cross-ocean exploration not so much, then the latter is where Columbus "exemplified" western civilisation and the former just human civilisation.

A writes:

An actual quote picked from the comment section of the immediately preceding post is not a straw man.

Nick Rowe writes:

I agree with Lorenzo.

ISTM that many/most (all?) groups of people in the past who: had the power to enslave others; would benefit by enslaving others, did in fact enslave others. The main thing preventing slavery was that human labour was so cheap, due to the Malthusian process, that there was nothing to gain by enslaving others. They would work for subsistence wages anyway. Better to take their land, if you could, and kill them if they defended it.

What is peculiar about Western Civilization is that it (eventually) abolished slavery despite having the power to enslave others and being able to benefit from enslaving others.

(But history is a very long time; there must be other examples where people did not enslave others despite having the power and motive to do so?)

K Kruchten writes:

It is not necessary to condemn or defend Columbus. He was a man of his age; and slavery, murder, genocide and all manner of cruel behavior was a part of everyday life. The last heretic was burned at the stake in Spain after the start of the industrial revolution.

Columbus does not have to be judged apart from it, but the attitudes that permitted and endorsed such behavior have been judged by us.

Should we judge every king, emperor, warlord, Duke, Count and knight who ever existed? We should judge the behavior and be pleased that we have progressed a little in recent times.

Dan W. writes:

Hugh hits the nail on the head. Columbus was a pioneer of Open Borders. I suppose a reason for Caplan's anger is that Columbus and the Europeans who followed after him do not represent the idealism that Caplan holds for his favorite cause.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:


If you are referring to the immediately preceding post by Caplan, "Conservative Relativism", you will not find that "actual quote" in any of the 17 comments. You will also not find it in any of the 17 comments to the post that is linked to in the first line of this one. While it may be in oblique reference to an earlier comment by one Martin Kelly on October 9, 2006, it's not a quote and it is a rather self-serving caricature of that comment. I suspect that explains the " goes *something* like this". That's what straw men are. I'm interested in an honest debate. So, if someone is challenging the argument allegedly made by another the least I would expect would be to identify that person and correctly point out where that quote that is being objected to can be found.

I'm willing to reconsider if you point me to the place, exactly, where this "actual quote" was derived made. But, the fact that you appear to have been misled as to the nature of the "actual quote" seems to add credence to my concern.

CMC writes:

What's the least bizarre one you've heard?

Massimo writes:

@Hugh + Dan, yes Columbus is the pioneer of open borders and mass immigration. This is Caplan's own moral relativism. Sometimes Caplan's own snark works against him. And sometimes anonymous internet commenters make far better points than he does.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't see why we need to judge people of the past by the standards of today.

If Columbus was immoral even by the standards of his own time, then he deserves condemnation.

However, there is at least one thing he deserves praise for, by the standards of his time, and that is having the courage and conviction necessary to engage in a long and dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic, to try something nobody had ever tried before.

Can't we acknowledge that having the guts to sail West to try to reach China was an endeavor worthy of admiration?

Dan W. writes:

It is estimated that tens of millions of indigenous people on the American continents perished from diseases that the Europeans carried with them and which the indigenous people were not immune. This happened regardless of slavery and deliberate murder.

Even if the Europeans had arrived with the most peaceful and noble intentions millions upon millions of indigenous people were going to end up dead, simply because the border was open.

Of course humans at that time were ignorant of the consequence of disease. Does this ignorance excuse the Europeans? What if some indigenous people were not ignorant? If such wise men warned of doom and destruction of their civilization would they have had a moral argument against European settlement?

Bostonian writes:

Americans honor Christopher Columbus because they are grateful to live where they do, not because they despise American Indians. Even the ancestors of people mistreated by whites, both American Indians and blacks, have much higher standards of living today than they would if Columbus had never sailed or if there had never been a slave trade. That does not mean the slave trade was not wrong, but I don't see why condemning wrongs done centuries ago are a high priority. I wonder if the purpose is to demoralize the ancestors of the people who committed those wrongs.

Ken from Ohio writes:

I agree with Dan W.

Clearly Columbus's primary crime was his failure to provide smallpox immunizations to the natives he encountered.

In fact this crime extends to Columbus's benefactor - Portugal.

Portugal was morally obligated to fund mass health screening and immunizations to all the natives that their explorers encountered.

Seems like some reparations are in order.

Jas Smith writes:

Lorenzo & Nick, I understand your point. You suppose that an example of X picks out just those properties that differentiate X from everything else. I disagree. An example is generally a concrete instance, not an abstract notion, and so may in general possess some properties in common with things it doesn’t exemplify. If my car is a fine example of the 1937 Studebaker Dictator, it will nevertheless have many traits (wheels, steering wheel, engine) in common with other kinds of cars. More to the point, these non-differentiating traits may include the morally and historically most significant traits of the type X. Which instances of X we take to best exemplify it will depend on our purposes, which in Caplan's case are moral and historical. I think his argument is obviously sound. The fact that other people also behaved badly doesn't make Columbus' behavior not bad.

MattP writes:

I'm not an expert on Columbus or the acceptable/normal standards of his time, but he looks to have governed in a particularly brutal manner:

"According to the report, Columbus once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery. Testimony recorded in the report claims that Columbus congratulated his brother Bartolomé on "defending the family" when the latter ordered a woman paraded naked through the streets and then had her tongue cut out for suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth.

The document also describes how Columbus put down native unrest and revolt; he first ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed and then paraded their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion."

I mean if the 16th-Century Spanish take issue with your behavior then it probably was characterized by unusual levels of cruelty.

Sam Haysom writes:

I think the real problem was that native American labor wasn't yet unionized so Colombus can't claim true open borders union busting credit. And in fairness Colombus and his fellow immigrants brought a lot of jobs the natives "couldn't do" rather than workers to do the jobs native Americans "wouldn't do" so he has that going against him.

It is strange that Caplan can never quite muster the incadscent sarcasm that characterizes his attacks on Western Civilization to attack traditional libertarian concerns like you know the welfare state or big government. Nope what Caplan really hates is that people 500 years ago did the heavy lifting that lets him live in his obnoxious hermetically sealed bubble. The kind of third tier research university professor lifestyle Caplan lives is completely absent in Europe.

mico writes:

The campaign to smear Columbus, while entirely justified in the narrow question of whether Columbus was a good or bad person, has an ulterior motive to undermine the foundational legitimacy of the United States.

The main problem with this smear-by-association is considering there to be a coherent civilisation that includes both medieval Spain and modern America. If there is, I challenge you to identify a single unifying characteristic of it. The US is an outgrowth of enlightenment England; it has no ideological descent from Columbus or the dead-end civilisation that spawned him and Latin America.

American patriots should not celebrate Columbus.

Zach writes:

Some comments on Columbus from the late Christopher Hitchens:

"I can never quite decide whether the anti-Columbus movement is merely risible or faintly sinister... It is sinister, though, because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred."

"Those who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway."

"The transformation of part of the northern part of this continent into "America" inaugurated a nearly boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and this deserves to celebrated with great vim and gusto, with or without the participation of those who wish they had never been born."

Jas Smith writes:

Zach, Christopher Hitchens was still writing in 1992 as a certain kind of Marxist. His argument was basically the same as was offered by Stalin, Mao, and their apologists in their justifications of mass murder. There are many things that can be said in response. The liberal view, of course, is that individuals have rights that cannot be violated in the name of historical progress. Second, it's not at all obvious that the greatest crimes in human history were the necessary price of whatever nice things their defenders credit to them. Do you really want to go down this road?

Robert Park writes:

Ah, yes...retroactive laws and retroactive ethics. Aren't these two of the staples of liberal political arguments?

Massimo writes:

MLK did many bad things and has a far more widely celebrated holiday. Will Caplan criticize that holiday or is it more moral relativism? In Austin, any trace of Columbus's name has been removed from the holiday, now called "student holiday". I see large banners celebrating "Indigenous People's Day" on UT Austin campus. Caplan is late to the bandwagon on this issue.

Zach writes:

If anything Hitchens was even more pro-west, pro-technology in his later years. Perhaps he has a point. After all, how many lives has modern medicine saved?

And was everything peaceful in the New World before Columbus? In his book "War Before Civilization," Lawrence Keeley writes that

" Crow Creek in South Dakota, archaeologists found a mass grave containing the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children who had been slaughtered, scalped, and mutilated during an attack on their village a century and a half before Columbus's arrival (ca. A.D. 1325). The attack seems to have occurred just when the village's fortifications were being rebuilt. All the houses were burned, and most of the inhabitants were murdered. This death toll represented more than 60 percent of the village's population, estimated from the number of houses to have been about 800. The survivors appear to have been primarily young women, as their skeletons are underrepresented among the bones; if so, they were probably taken away as captives. Certainly,the site was deserted for some time after the attack because the bodies evidently remained exposed to scavenging animals for a few weeks before burial. In other words, this whole village was annihilated in a single attack and never reoccupied."

How did the natives learn to treat their enemies in such a manner? Obviously not from Thucydides or Homer. It is unfortunate that until we piece together pre-Columbian history though archaeology, we will have much romanticizing about that period.

Hugh writes:

@Massimo +1


"Indigenous People's Day"?!!

You need to really take a stand against this: if people are going to start saying they have rights that accrue just because they've been around 10,000 years, there's no telling what may happen next!

Maybe you should have stuck with Columbus.....

David Friedman writes:

"Can't we acknowledge that having the guts to sail West to try to reach China was an endeavor worthy of admiration? "

I think you have it backwards. Columbus thought he could make it to the eastern end of Asia with a squadron that in fact barely made it to the New World. Both the circumference of the Earth and the width of Asia were known quantities, but he managed to persuade himself that the earth was much smaller than it was and Asia much wider.

I don't think scientific incompetence or wishful thinking are worth of admiration. Nor being lucky, which was his true accomplishment.

Hugh writes:

@Massimo +1


"Indigenous People's Day"?!!

You need to really take a stand against this: if people are going to start saying they have rights that accrue just because they've been around 10,000 years, there's no telling what may happen next!

Maybe you should have stuck with Columbus.....

Shane L writes:

In 1537 Pope Paul III released a papal bull forbidding the enslavement or abuse of American Indians. The bull claimed that Indians were people, not animals, and therefore:

"...the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved."

This was a few decades after the death of Columbus, but it shows that roughly around his time there was a consciousness that killing and enslaving Indians was morally abhorrent. I'm not sure, but perhaps he was not really just epitomising his period and is therefore more morally culpable than some argue.

Dan W. writes:

The US celebrated Columbus for the ideal of exploration & discovery he represented. Obviously there was an aspect of whitewashing and idolizing the man. But it is just as dishonest to tear the man down and judge him for consequences he was only tangentially responsible for as it is to build the man up and worship him for values he may not have lived.

Do those who descended from the European settlers of America have anything to be proud of and grateful for? Do they? I think the answer is clearly yes. Those settlers created the greatest nation on the planet. A nation that provided freedom and prosperity for millions who otherwise were consigned to bow to their masters and voice unheard appeals to their kings.

So how does one recognize this achievement? With derision & self loathing? Really? Is that all the thanks the elites can offer? Perhaps the fatuity of the elites' complaints is best illustrated by this simple observation: What have they done that can possibly compare to what the American settlers did? They complain that the nation fails their expectations but that is all they do and all they offer - complaint.

Rohan Swee writes:

For example, the murderer could loudly donate to your favorite charity. Are you then morally obliged to reciprocate by letting him get away with murder?

Remarkably inapt analogy. I do not benefit from a murderer donating to my favorite charity. (Unless by "favorite charity" I mean one whose largesse most profitably favors me.) Later-coming immigrants who presume to claim moral superiority over preceding conquerors and settlers are more accurately analogized to receivers of stolen goods who presume to condemn the morals of thieves.

Christopher Columbus, a slaver and a murderer...

What a great all-purpose opener. Let's try some variations: Mohammed, a slaver and a murderer... A veritable Swiss army knife of sanctimony for the incorrigibly presentist of all persuasions...

Massimo writes:

@Hugh, I agree with the anti Columbus points. But most heroes and holidays have many dark sides and silly historical interpretations. It is silly to single out just Columbus. Indigenous People's Day is not outrageous. I mentioned it to say, that this isn't a new idea. It's widely discussed. It is mostly reasonable except why single out Columbus among all the holidays/heroes that have dark, warped historical interpretations. As I said, MLK and Mandela weren't the saints that they are portrayed as.

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