The limits of political moralizing

Having seen, in the last seven years, the kind of behavior our top political leaders are capable of, what I am going to say here may sound counterintuitive if not plainly wrong.  I believe that if we continue to confuse political moralizing with political analysis, we will remain blind to the systemic nature of our political crises.  We will forever be ousting leaders and putting in new ones, without ever making a dent on the mass poverty and social inequality that have plagued our nation since its founding.

The words “good” and “evil” pervade nearly every form of human judgment.  As residues of a dominant moral code, these terms have remained particularly potent in present-day Philippine society. Thus, it is not surprising to find so much moral labeling and, in contrast, so little intelligent political debate on policies and programs.  We see this clearly in the ongoing blame-game between the government and Meralco.

As societies become modern, people will be less inclined to be judgmental.  It doesn’t mean they become less moral. It only means they become more cognizant of the plurality of moral perspectives in a complex society.

This plurality comes not just from the moral diversity brought about by the communion of individuals raised in various cultures.  More importantly, this is the result of the internal differentiation along functional lines of society itself. This is the crux of modern society’s complexity.  Instead of a single moral code applicable to every conceivable human relationship, what we find in modern society is the emergence of autonomous spheres of communication, each governed by their own specific normative codes.

Thus the modern legal system does not deal with what is moral or immoral.  Rather, it is concerned with what is lawful and unlawful. Moral and lawful, as we know, do not always coincide – a great source of grief to traditionalists who wish to preserve the correspondence between the two.

We see this too in the differentiation between the legal and the political.  While laws are very much a product of politics (Roberto Unger calls law “frozen politics”), their interpretation and enforcement cannot be made dependent on politics without ultimately damaging them.

Politics itself is undergoing a wrenching process of differentiation in our society, as it struggles to free itself particularly from the influence of religion and the family.  The Catholic Church remains a powerful voice in Philippine politics.  It is thus ironic to watch the present leaders of the Church delineate their role as “moral shepherds” in order to precisely exclude the exercise of political leadership that their flock has come to expect from them.  They find it very difficult to shake off the memory of the interventionist role that the late Cardinal Sin played so deftly in the nation’s political life.

If the bishops have shown restraint in politics to the point of being accused of moral abdication, the same cannot be said of the country’s political families.  They continue to act as the major instruments of political recruitment, electoral financing, and interest aggregation — functions that properly belong to political parties.  The power of the political families exactly mirrors the weakness of the country’s political parties.

The absence of strong and stable political parties representing alternative programmatic perspectives is at the root of our nation’s political immaturity.  Instead of serving as a venue for criticizing existing programs and policies and offering solutions, our political system has become nothing more than a popularity and patronage game.  In lieu of the open government/opposition debates that steer the course of modern politics, what we have are the behind-thescenes negotiations and accommodations among the few political and economic families that rule this country.

Because there are no real policy issues on which they are divided along programmatic lines, Filipino politicians resort to name-calling to distinguish themselves from each other.  That is why political discourse in our society is suffused with words like “evil”, “greedy”, “thieves”, “corrupt”, “liar”, “depraved,” etc.  These are easier to understand and remember than the complex issues raised in policy discussions.  Elections are reduced to a choice between manifestly “good” persons and manifestly “evil” persons.  Wittingly or unwittingly, our mass media have done a lot to encourage this pre-modern form of politics.

If politics and governance were as simple as this, it would be enough to find do-gooders and heroes in every field and draft them into politics.  But we know that it takes more than this to make politics work for us in the long term.  We need to form autonomous political parties that are not merely surrogates of families and business groups.  We need to develop an informed public that is not easily captured by patronage.  We need to create an independent and professional career civil service and armed forces that will not be a football to contending political forces, and an autonomous judiciary that is not afraid of politicians.

I think that if we can focus on these tasks, we would not be desperately looking for messiahs.  And we would not have to ask what my fellow Inquirer columnist, Neal Cruz, asked in this space the other day in connection with the power mess: “So what do we consumers do short of a revolution and lining up the top public officials and businessmen against the wall?”


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