Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Columbus: A Moral Retrospective

By Tim C. Mazur

Columbus as saint, Columbus as sinner - the question is secondary. More pertinent is whether different cultures can be equally valuable or is Western culture superior. The 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage westward was the setting for markedly different answers to the question from Ed Castillo, Ph.D., professor of Native American Studies at Sonoma State University, and Michael Berliner, Ph.D., executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. The two scholars exchanged views at a Center for Applied Ethics symposium funded by the California Council for the Humanities.

From word one, the speakers quickly peeled competing opinions of the Columbian encounter to expose their core disagreement: whether cultures can or should be compared in value. Dr. Berliner opened with his bottom line - cultural relativism, the concept that different cultures are equally valuable in their own right, is moral anarchy. The truth, he said, is that cultures can and should be rated on the basis of the values that describe them.

Accordingly, Berliner continued, Western culture is objectively superior to others because its values, including life, logic, individualism, progress, and science, are superior values. To prove his point, Berliner cited how Western culture has brought forth the world's greatest technologies (e.g., computers, air conditioning, videotape) by which the quality of a culture should be judged.

Native American culture, in contrast, pursues nonhuman values such as nature, tradition, ritual, environmentalism, and ethnicity. Ethnicity breeds racism, Berliner asserted, and preferring nature and the environment over humans is absurd. When it comes to considering Columbus, Dr. Berliner felt the explorer should be honored for ushering Western culture in to consume Native American culture.

Berliner's cultural rating system and some of his supporting facts were challenged by a few of the 150-plus individuals in attendance. No one was more suspicious of his arguments, though, than Dr. Castillo, who alleged that specific Native Americans referenced in Dr. Berliner's address were "fakes." Castillo argued that Berliner's view of Native American culture has little or no value due to the lack of accurate information available in the historical record. Noting numerous inaccuracies in widely cited accounts of Native Americans, Castillo declared "the worst thing that can happen to a culture is to have its history told by its conquerors."

Citing his research as background, Castillo demonstrated how comparing Native American culture and Western culture is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Western civilization, for example, defines history through human-related events (e.g., wars, rulers) while Native Americans define history in earth-related terms (e.g., seasons, droughts). Westerners are people of science, driven by individualism while Native Americans are people of myth (defined as "truths"), driven by communal beliefs. Before scholars compare the relative value of cultures, Castillo concluded, we need to fix the historical record so that it includes all cultural perspectives.

The event ended with several questions from the audience on issues ranging from competing views of environmentalism to Aristotle's writings on cultural relativism. All in all, both scholars effectively shared their contrasting points of view and moved the audience closer to settling the question whether cultures can and should be compared.

On May 11, 1992, the Center for Applied Ethics sponsored a symposium entitled, "Ethics and the Columbus Quincentennial," featuring Edward Castillo, Ph.D., professor of Native American Studies, Sonoma State University, and Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D., executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. The event was funded by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities.

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