The Bribes of Columbus
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.