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!
Now, I’m all for leavening our appreciation of figures like Columbus (or Jefferson or whomever) with the recognition that they participated in all sorts of morally hideous practices. But I’m also not sure this is as incoherent as it seems on first blush if we keep clear about the distinction between how we evaluate:
- An action or practice
- A culture in which that action or practice is prevalent or condoned, and
- A member of that culture who commits the action or follows the practice
It seems to me perfectly consistent to say that (1) slavery, murder, and the exploitation of less technologically advanced peoples were precisely as wrong in 1492 as they are today, but (2) someone like Columbus, a man of his time and culture, should not personally be judged by that timeless standard, as though he were our contemporary.
This all is perfectly obvious when it comes to factual questions. Tomatoes are a healthy, non-poisonous food, and this was as true in 1600 as it is today. The fact is timeless: For most people, there is no good reason to avoid tomatoes on health grounds today, and there was no such reason in 1600. But an individual in Shakespearean England who firmly believed that all tomatoes are Killer Tomatoes was not being unreasonable or irrational, as we would be apt to judge someone who held that belief in modern America.
Just as important, though, is a difference in function between retrospective appraisal and present judgments that have an exhortative function as much as anything else. To take the most extreme perspective, from a God’s-eye-view, both individuals and whole societies are playing out their respective sociological, psychological, biological, and physical scripts. Insofar as the historian tries to approximate that perspective, condemning Columbus is just sort of frivolous, except to the extent that we in the present require reminders that, yes, slavery is indeed very bad. And for the most part, we don’t. But things are very different from a participant perspective. It may be that every murder is just the upshot of a series of external causal factors, but since we hope our judgment is one of those causal factors, we don’t therefore take a more indulgent attitude toward murderers. And so it is with cultures: About those long dead, we have the luxury of saying “well, it wasn’t very attractive, but that’s how they did things, and perhaps it was even an improvement on what came before.” We’re more critical of those still active because our concern is with where they’re going next.