Morality in fragments

The other day, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno jolted the nation with statements to the effect that the solutions to our country’s problems do not lie with the legal system but with the moral system. Our society, he was quoted as saying, has “too many laws but (is) lacking in morality.”  Confronted with daily reports of corruption in nearly every sphere of our society, I think it is easy to agree with Chief Justice Puno’s assessment.  I however have a slightly different view of the national situation.

When our society was small and simple, the requirements of morality were pretty straightforward.  We took our cues from our parents, teachers, religious mentors, and national leaders. But things changed dramatically in just the last fifty years.  There are more of us today. Our experiences are more varied than those of the generations before us.  There is today greater diversity among our people in beliefs and values.  We can no longer assume that a general moral code can be applied with equal clarity to the different social spheres in which we participate.

This is far from saying that morality is passé.  We still have notions of right and wrong, or good and evil.  But, as our society undergoes differentiation, we begin to define what is moral in reference to specific institutional areas.  Thus, instead of an encompassing moral meta-code, we speak of morality in the family, morality in politics, morality in business, morality in law, etc.  Modern societies draw specific ethical codes of ethics relevant to particular professions or spheres of activity, instead of defining general moral principles valid for all situations.  Indeed, in such societies, there is an aversion to the use of moral judgments in functional settings.  Thus a criminal offender may be pronounced guilty, but not immoral or evil.

Philosophers and analysts of modern societies view the increasing replacement of moral precepts with ethical codes to be a feature of modernity.  But they do not always agree whether this is good or bad.

Zygmunt Bauman laments it as the erasure of moral responsibility. The fixation with ethical rules, he says, strips human action of its moral dimension.  It encourages people to memorize the rules, master their outer limits, and forget the moral ends they are supposed to serve. To be moral, he said, does not mean always choosing the good over the bad.  It means, rather, being conscious of the moral aspect in every action, and facing up to the challenge of moral dilemmas.

In contrast, Niklas Luhmann says that the crumbling of an allembracing moral system is an inescapable feature of modern functionally-differentiated societies.  Its consequences are often felt in the form of a moral crisis.  A moral crisis may sometimes prompt a need to return to pre-modern practices, such as turning to a central moral watchtower to re-integrate a fragmented society.  For Luhmann, this is a step backward, an attempt to apply archaic solutions to the problems of a complex society.

Recognizing the gravity of the moral crisis, Chief Justice Puno declared it was “time for the moral forces of the country to manifest themselves.”  But who are these moral forces?  I don’t think this was a call to specific institutions like the churches and the schools.  I believe he meant, more precisely, the recovery and strengthening of the moral dimension in the different areas of our collective life.

The chief magistrate said “the country needs leaders with moral character.”  I think it would be simplistic to interpret this as a call to draft moral educators like religious ministers to public office.  Surely, they don’t have a monopoly on morality.  I believe rather that it is a call to heed the moral voice in whatever sphere of life we find ourselves, to take time to figure out the dilemma it poses, instead of dismissing it as irrelevant.  This, we will find, is not going to be easy as we strive to preserve the functional independence of the institutions we need to build democracy in a complex society.

The point I am making is more than a question of interpretation.  It has to do with how we should act to achieve a re-integration of our society, while making sure that no single class or sector is allowed to undermine the autonomy and integrity of our institutions.  “If we lose the independence of the judiciary,” Justice Puno said, “democracy could die.”  We can say the same thing of the presidency, the legislature, the civil service, the mass media, and indeed of politics itself, etc.

Looking at the matter more closely, we will find that in our society the threat to the autonomous functioning of institutions comes mainly from the traditional habit of our leaders to extend their power and influence beyond their offices.  That is as true of bishops and businessmen as it is true of politicians.  It is as pervasive among our leaders as it is among our people.  The failure or refusal to differentiate, to respect boundaries, lies fatally at the root of our national problems.

The problem of moral integration in modern society cannot be addressed by attempting to restore a general moral system.  To do so would be to revive the hierarchical order of traditional society, with all its excesses.  Thus, if the Church seeks to “moralize” politics or business, it has little choice but to proceed from a recognition of the differentiation of institutional spheres. It must do so by supporting the active engagement of the laity in politics and business, rather than by directly intervening in these spheres.


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