From The Ethics Alarms Archives: Two Ethics Takes On Columbus Day

In 2011, I wrote an Ethics Alarm post extolling Christopher Columbus, and urging readers to celebrate this day named in his honor. Two years later, I wrote a post arguing that the holiday was a mistake. Which is how I really feel? Which is correct? I have no idea. I just read both, and found each persuasive. You know the famous observation in thethe essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”? Today I like that line. Sometimes I don’t.

I certainly don’t like the current movement to cancel Columbus Day, and Columbus, out of the culture and historical record because he was not appropriately sensitive to indigenous people by 21st Century standards. That is no better than tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee, airbrushing history to avoid the inherent conflicts and dilemmas that make it invaluable to us going forward into the unknown…like Columbus did.

Here are the two posts. You decide. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled I could find the great Stan Freberg’s version of Columbus’s quest (above). More of my sensibilities about life, humor and history were effected by Freberg’s satire than I like to admit…

I. Celebrate Columbus Day, Honor Columbus

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Baby-Switching Ethics

The song from H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story amazingly well.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, a horrendous situation resembling the plot-resolving song from “H.M.S. Pinafore” may be reaching an unusual resolution for such cases—a sensible and ethical one. The families never suspected until one of the mothers underwent tests when her ex-husband refused to pay child support. One of the mothers wanted her biological child back, while the other wants to keep the child she had raised. A judge now has to decide.

The court asked the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law to investigate and make a report n what would be in the children’s best interests. The experts’ answer: “The recommendation is that the children should stay with the parents who have raised them and should also be permitted to have contact with their biological parents.”

Exactly. Let’s hope that the court follows the recommendation, the only ethical one. Four years old is too old for this wrong to be set right without making it worse. What about three years old, though? Where do we draw that line? Furthermore, I am assuming that the two families are more or less equally fit, able and qualified to raise children. What if the investigation showed that one family was clearly more advantageous for a child: better educated parents with more resources and experience with children, living in a safer community? Then what would be the calculation of “the right thing”? The benefit of one child would be the detriment of the other, a zero sum game. In such a case, would fairness govern, rather than the best interests of the children? Why should one child be cheated out of the better life awaiting him, because of a nurse’s mistake? Fortunately, we don’t have those details, so we can make a confident abstract ethics judgement without confounding factors and issues. Continue reading

The Strange, Conflicted, Unethical Holiday We Call Columbus Day

"Yes, it seems like a catastrophe now, but some day creatures called human beings will celebrate this day..."

“Yes, it seems like a catastrophe now, but some day creatures called human beings will celebrate this moment…”

What are we celebrating on Columbus Day, and is it ethical to celebrate it?

When I was a child, I was taught that we were celebrating the life of Cristoforo Columbo, popularly known as Columbus, who was convinced, against the prevailing skeptics of the time, that the Earth was round rather than flat, and in the process of proving his thesis, made the United States of America possible by discovering the New World in 1492. Virtually none of what we were taught about Columbus was true,  so what we thought we were celebrating wasn’t really what we were celebrating. Columbus wasn’t alone in believing the world was round: by 1492, most educated people knew the flat Earth theory was dumb. He blundered into discovering the New World, and by introducing Spain into this rich, virgin and vulnerable territory, he subjected millions of people and generations of them to Spain’s destructive and venal approach to exploration, which was, in simple terms, loot without mercy. The Spanish were like locusts to the Americas; South and Central America are still paying the priced today. Surely we aren’t celebrating Columbus’s complicity in that. Continue reading