Joe Sanders’ defense of Christopher Columbus (“Another View: Criticism of Columbus overlooks navigator’s monumental feats,” Oct. 14) sheds light on the explorer’s achievements. But beyond saying that enslavement of native peoples was normal for the time, Sanders avoids the question we now hear so often: Why should people of the past be judged by the ethics of today?

This should not be challenging. The point of knowing history is to expand understanding of human experience. We won’t build this perspective if the past is examined only with the values of the past. Many examples come quickly to mind:

If we consider slaves in the pre-Civil War U.S. only as property, protected under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, we would condemn abolition as a campaign of theft.

If we look at the 1930s only with then-current attitudes toward Jews, we might find the Nazi enormities not so horrible.

 If we consider only the crying need of the Japanese Empire for secure access to oil in 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor becomes almost reasonable.

And if we see the Jim Crow era in the U.S. only as an effort to maintain social stability, it would be hard to criticize the decades of segregation and denial of basic rights to black people.

But we don’t believe these things. And we don’t really believe that skills of the purveyors of evil things somehow mitigate the outcomes. Sure, Columbus was a great navigator. The Japanese did a great job navigating to Hawaii in 1941, but we don’t call Dec. 7 “Yamamoto Day.” And Stalin was a great organizer. And so on.

We have much to celebrate as a nation, and many heroes to recognize. But we won’t grow as people unless we allow our perspective to grow and change.

Joe O’Donnell

Portland