Morality and modernity

In the face of pervasive corruption, various sectors — including the government itself — have called for moral renewal.  This response has the same impact as appealing to a person’s conscience to stop him from doing something that is almost habitual or customary to him. His conscience may bother him, but he will find a way of re-describing or rationalizing the conduct in question so that he is no longer troubled by it.

I argue that corruption is not due to the absence or weakness of moral values.  Corruption is a systemic problem, usually the product of a clash of values.  It is the failure of individuals to differentiate the rules applicable to various spheres of social life – the family, the economy, government, religion, politics, etc.  Indeed, in most instances, corruption results from the activation of traditional values – e.g., love, friendship, kindness — in situations where they are not appropriate.  To put it bluntly: corruption is the result of our inability to instill and enforce the differentiated values of a modern society.

To see corruption as a consequence not of moral breakdown but of the failure to build a way of life appropriate to modern times is to shift the focus of attention from morals to systems, and from the quest for moral leaders to the quest for strong institutions.

I have nothing against the use of moral language to describe the nature of our problems.  But it has its limits.  In a pluralistic society, securing a moral consensus on anything is as elusive as finding a meaningful common ground for all types of religious beliefs.  As societies become more complex and diverse, the relevance of a unified moral code as a guide to proper conduct diminishes. That is why moral judgments tend spark more dissension than unity in modern society.

The modern way is to confine judgments to the limited spheres in which they are made.  A court of law declares a man guilty, but this is not the same as calling him immoral.  A school may fail a student for not meeting academic standards, but it may not question his religious or political beliefs.  A parent is expected to love his children and advance their careers, but modern society frowns on parents who allow their love for their children to interfere in their roles, for example, as teachers or as public officials.  In all the years I have been a teacher, I have resolutely avoided having any of my children in my class.  There is no explicit rule that says you cannot, but I would hate to subject myself to the perception that I might not be fair.

In traditional Filipino society, such conflict-of-interest situations were avoided by invoking the norm of delicadeza.  This refers to sensitivity arising out of a fine sense of personal honor and self-esteem.  It is what prevented our early politicians and public officials from abusing their power or authority.  This sense of honor is strong in simple societies, where one’s life is under the constant scrutiny of one’s community.  It persists in modern societies like Japan where deeply rooted norms pertaining to personal honor are stronger than modern bureaucratic rules.

Perhaps, in many ways, our problems with corruption reflect our newness as a nation.  The customs and traditions that should support our collective life as a nation were not fully developed when colonialism intercepted our progress to nationhood.  The colonial powers left us modern differentiated institutions that had little basis in our own experience and instincts as a people.  That is why, at almost every point, the cultural impulses of a simple society have trumped the logic of these borrowed institutions.

But we’re slowly learning. What has stood in the way of our transition to modernity is the absolute poverty of most of our people.  All our modern institutions are premised on the existence of a democratic society. The principles of one-person-one-vote, of equality before the law, of representative government, of the right to information, etc. have no meaning in a hierarchical society in which only a few are born to rule, while half are consigned to an almost permanent life of deprivation.  In such a society, the default can only be the use of power, money, and connection to override institutional autonomy.

In our society, the struggle for modern governance has fallen on the shoulders of the educated classes.  Because they understand the logic of modern institutions, it is they who have been most vocal about the scourge of corruption. Their impatience for change has made them politically adventurous and skeptical of elections.  Edsa I and Edsa II mirror their attempts at political transformation.  Alas, the outcome of these events has been a reversal of good governance ideals.  What happened? It is not just because the wrong people took power.  It is rather because these dramatic political shifts failed to touch the foundation of our feudalistic society – mass poverty.

Thus we cannot separate the goal of institutional modernity from the need to eliminate mass poverty, powerlessness, and illiteracy. Corruption will not be wiped out be mere moral exhortation.  The pursuit of a just and modern society has to find concrete expression in our everyday lives – in our efforts to assist the poor among us in whatever way we can, in our refusal to take short cuts in public transactions, in our resolve to criticize and avoid conflict-of-interest situations, in our staunch defense of the autonomy of institutions, and in our conscious efforts to teach our children the values and norms of modern citizenship.

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