Ethical progress

Jose Rizal once used this term to denote significant changes in the consciousness of Filipinos, which to him justified an adjustment in the way Spain governed the islands. “The islands cannot remain in the condition they are without requiring from the sovereign country more liberty…. For new men, a new social order.”

In that famous essay, “The Philippines a Century Hence,” Rizal bewailed the continuous suppression of the Filipinos’ fundamental rights and their non-representation in the Spanish Cortes.  He warned that an armed revolution for independence would be the logical consequence of this oppression.  He admonished Spain to give Filipinos their rights as human beings, and to confer upon them equal status as the Spaniards.  If Spain will not listen, the country has no choice but to redeem herself in the field of battle, he said.

“There now exists a factor which was formerly lacking – the spirit of the nation has been aroused and a common misfortune, a common debasement has united all the inhabitants of the islands.  A numerous enlightened class now exists within and without the Islands, a class created and continually augmented by the stupidity of certain governing powers…. This class, whose number is cumulatively increasing, is in constant communication with the rest of the islands, and if today it constitutes only the brain of the country, in a few years it will form the whole nervous system and manifest its existence in all its acts.”

Rizal was thinking of the Filipino youth of his time, but his words aptly describe the people power generation that overthrew the corrupt and incompetent regime of Joseph Ejercito Estrada. Rizal believed that the future of the country lay in the hands of the enlightened Filipino youth, who embodied the highest level of ethical progress.  In his view, only when a colonized people have attained ethical progress does it become logical and natural for them to claim the right to self-government.

Rizal read the signs of the times correctly.  He knew that modernity had reached our shores.  Values that were alien to a subjugated people had taken root in the minds of educated Filipinos – for example, that all human beings had fundamental rights and that nations had the right to create their own destiny.  Such ideas provided the revolution against Spain a nationalist vision that previous revolts did not have.  More than just reacting to the excesses of a tyrannical colonial regime, these new Filipinos were creating a new democratic and independent nation.

As it was in Rizal’s time, so it is today.  Only the circumstances have changed.  We are now a free people, but the task of building the nation is far from complete.  Ethical progress, of which Rizal spoke so passionately, is only now beginning to be evident again in our national life.  The young Filipinos who formed the core of People Power II were not just demanding the resignation of a corrupt and undeserving president.  More than this, they were inaugurating a new political culture.  Where is this striving come from?  Why have we suddenly discovered corruption, and how do we explain the strong revulsion that young people today feel for the system of trapo politics?

I think this sea change in political consciousness has come with our gradual integration into a global moral community.  Young Filipinos today are exposed to a modern way of life, rules for living that are still new to most of our people but are taken for granted in the more stable democracies abroad.  Just like the ilustrados of the late 19th century, today’s young people are learning to measure their own society’s institutions by the standards of a more universal morality.

They demand value for the taxes they pay, respect for their rights as persons, accountability from government, and a high level of honesty and integrity from people in public life.  Against the grain of the traditional culture in which their ancestors grew, they demand that persons be measured by their capabilities and not by their family names; they expect laws to be followed by everyone, with no exemptions based on social status.  They expect status to be earned rather than inherited.  They insist that every Filipino be given equal opportunity to grow into a complete human being. These, not coincidentally, are also the basic norms of conduct in the global community into which our young Filipinos expect to be received as full-fledged players.

Like the trapos who continue to dominate our society, Estrada underestimated the power of the thinking generation.  He was not aware that young Filipinos were quietly imbibing a modern ethos that rejected politicians who treat their positions like private property, and mindless celebrities who indulge their illusions by seeking public office.

Rizal’s agenda for an ethically awakened generation is far from finished.  A hundred years ago, he tried to persuade Spain that Filipinos had matured enough to be able to run their own affairs. Today, we confront not a foreign power but ourselves, but the questions about fitness for self-rule are essentially the same.  Can we respect and live with one another even if we belong to different religions and ethnic backgrounds?  Can we take care of our people, especially the young and the least of our citizens?  Do we have a concept of what it is to be human in our time? Can we restore our devastated environment and rebuild our institutions? Can we rise from the wasted opportunities of the past and look to the future with hope?


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