Charter change and moral imagination

To say that an issue is more than just a legal issue is to say that it is not enough to argue the rightness of an action on the basis of what the law allows.  The move to amend the constitution a few months before the 1998 elections is one example.

Opponents of charter change say the issue is above all a moral one. Its advocates, on the other hand, counter that it is basically a political issue.  What do these things mean?  To say that an issue is a moral question is to argue that rightness or wrongness must be decided on the basis of fundamental human values.  To say that something is a political issue is to argue that the final arbiter of what should be done is the people, voting freely according to their own judgment.

We see both positions being articulated in the present debate on constitutional amendments.  The moral position is exemplified by the Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Sin and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).  It argues that the current moves of PIRMA and of the legislators bent on convening Congress as a constituent assembly are morally suspect.

Church leaders are convinced these are part of a ploy to keep President Ramos in office beyond 1998, when his term expires.  They say it is immoral for Ramos now to use his power to extend his term, because when he ran for the presidency in 1992 he knew and implicitly agreed that the office was good only for six years.    This move, they warn us, is reminiscent of the manipulation that Marcos and his people resorted to not too long ago in order to establish a permanent dictatorship.

The political standpoint argues, first of all, that a constitution should express the will of the people.  The people have a right to amend the constitution in the manner provided by the law.  And a vital part of the process of amending the constitution is the submission of the proposed amendments to the electorate for ratification.  We must let the people decide what they want with their constitution.  No heavenly or earthly authority should be able to tell them when is the appropriate time to change the constitution  and what provisions in it they can or cannot touch.   All that we must ensure is that the true will of the people is freely and adequately expressed.  This is what democracy means.

While seemingly contradictory, these two perspectives actually have much in common.  The moral standpoint must ultimately express itself in the political arena.  On the other hand, the political perspective must ultimately rest on a moral conviction — the conviction that in a situation in which there are many competing versions of what is good, we must trust the people to use their judgment and decide what is in their best interest.  And that too is a fundamental value.

If the debate on charter change were a simple question of good versus evil, I am sure there will not be as much division on the matter as we are seeing now.  We need not be as cynical as the skeptics  Pareto and Nietzsche, however, to assume that behind the lofty pronouncements of the protagonists on this issue lie naked interests. Pareto in particular believed that our moral ideals are but the shadows of our darkest motives.    And motives are complex products of our deepest sentiments, our unacknowledged instincts, our fears, our experiences, our interests, and our biases.  They are the true determinants of our actions.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, we tend to clothe them with all kinds of rationalizations and moral principles.

Seen from this perspective, no higher moral ground need necessarily be claimed by any of the protagonists in this debate.  President Ramos may be seen as a manipulator bent on staying in power, no matter how much he invokes democracy or the right to free expression when he defends the Pirma initiative or the constituent assembly.  I argue that we must assume that he wants to stay beyond 1998.

In like manner, those who now uphold the inviolability of the constitution may not necessarily be its best defenders; a number of them had once made a mockery of constitutionalism in order to serve Marcos.  They want Ramos out of the way so they can put their own man or woman in the presidency.  Others may be motivated more by deep personal animosity to Ramos than by a powerful yearning to preserve democracy in our society.

Does it matter then that this whole affair may not really be about fundamental morality and principles?  I believe it does.  The realization should compel us to define the pragmatic interests that are at stake in this debate for ourselves as a nation.   Reduced to its bare essentials, the question really is: Will it do the country more good in the long term to revise our laws on political succession at this crucial juncture in order to allow President Ramos to stay in office beyond 1998, knowing that the last time we allowed this to happen, we bred a political monster?   Shall we take that risk one more time just to prevent the likely accession to power of the same political bloc that had flourished around the monster we drove away in 1986?  Or is it better not to fiddle with the system now in the interest of long-term stability, even if it means having to deal with the uncertainties of a new presidency?

Couched in these terms, the debate is no longer easily seen as a contest between an obvious good and an obvious evil.  We should avoid the tendency to demonize the position that we disagree with. The quality called “moral imagination” allows us to find our way through the dilemmas of our time without killing one another, and to be able to fight for our convictions without forgetting  that we might actually be wrong.


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