On April 30 this year, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Executive Order 314 creating a Presidential Commission on Values Formation (PCVF), which, we are told, she herself will head. To this new commission have been invited, as members, the leaders of the country’s various religious communities.  EO 314 is being billed as a component of Ms Arroyo’s package of anti-corruption and good governance initiatives. The mandate it gives to the commission is “to establish a strong moral foundation for moral value formation in the government bureaucracy.”

This is nothing but platitudinous rhetoric. An idea like PCVF is yet another example of the politician’s habit of confronting complex problems by lip service.  A nation cannot build new values by means of a presidential order.  It can only do so by altering its whole institutional practice.

Values are the things that a community desires or considers desirable.  They constitute the fabric of a society, providing its institutions unity and coherence.  Values are not invented overnight. They are slowly woven over time, passed on to succeeding generations who use them as guides in their quest for solutions to the problems of living.

We are born into a world of values.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we are incarnations of values.  There is little we can do about values except to become conscious of their presence and impact on our lives, to criticize or celebrate them, to unlearn those that weaken us, and to promote those that strengthen us. Nietzsche says that we must treat values as our “self-defense and necessity.” One acquires values by watching others live by them, not by listening to sermons about values.  Value talk is cheap.  What is valuable is example.

Sociologists investigating the values of a given society do not rely on what moral elders say or preach, or even on what people say to explain their actions. They do so by observing behavior and by looking for signs of the preferences that actually orient the everyday lives of people.

By the same token, a meaningful program to build strong moral values cannot begin by assembling a team of religious leaders and asking them what our values should be.  I think many of us already know what our values should be, though we may disagree on the importance we assign to these values. But it is one thing to profess values, and another thing to live by them.  I think our main problem is that there is a large gap between the values we claim to believe in and the values that actually guide our actions.

Our Constitution’s Declaration of Principles and State Policies may be read as a litany of our nation’s core values.  Yet the conduct of our national life is antithetical to almost everything the Constitution celebrates.  We don’t take our constitutional values seriously. It is obvious that enshrining them in the nation’s basic charter does not guarantee their realization.  The problem is not their lack of clarity. The problem is their irrelevance to our national life.

The fault is not in the values themselves, or in our genes or stars.  It is simply that the conditions that make it possible for us to live up to our Constitution’s value aspirations are not there. We actually live by another set of values that are more congenial to the kind of society we are, more feudal than democratic, more traditional than modern, reflecting the social instincts of a highly unequal and underdeveloped nation.

Our failure to abolish graft and corruption mirrors these conditions. We have not been lacking in high-mindedness. The 1987 Constitution devotes a whole article to the accountability of public officers. Section 1 of Art. 11 is emphatic: “Public office is a public trust.  Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

These are progressive values practiced in modern societies, where public office is won either by honest election or by appointment based on merit.  Where public office is treated not as a lucrative position but as a vocation, not as a means for advancing private interests but as an instrument for achieving the public good, not as the exclusive right of a few wealthy and well-connected families but as a privilege open to every citizen.

Such public values are difficult to enforce in a society where the masses of the people are poor and dependent on the power, protection and patronage of the few.  The problem of graft and corruption is rooted in the very nature of our political and economic system.  The values we denounce as the driving force of graft and corruption are the same ones that build solidarity in traditional societies like ours.  Today we are compelled to re-examine these values because they clash with the requirements of  modern nationhood and with the rules of participation in a complex world economy.

A values commission, if it is not to be a vacuous creation, should not begin by prescribing and promoting values.  Rather it should be investigating those operative values that actually lie behind the different practices of our public life.  It should be asking why these practices and institutional patterns persist, and who benefits from them. Only when we have come to terms with graft and corruption not so much as a violation of values but rather as the direct result of a parallel set of values now increasingly obsolete can we take the first step toward freeing our society from its grip.


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