Repeatedly, in almost every issue we have faced in this country, the question is asked: “It may not be illegal, but is it moral?” Such a question would not have arisen in an earlier time when a good name, social esteem, or a reputation for decency, meant more to people than being seen as law-abiding. Indeed, doing something merely to comply with the letter of the law, signifying a form of motivated calculation, often elicited wariness if not outright distrust. Delicadeza mattered; utmost sensitivity was demanded particularly of those who occupied positions in the public realm.
Nowadays, not even the law can command correct behavior. It has been totally drained of its compelling spirit. Technicians of formal compliance have sprouted in our present society, providing expert advice to those who refuse to be bound by the law but do not want to be penalized for stepping out of bounds. They specialize in exploring the outer limits of feasible behavior. They spot the loopholes and capitalize on the lack of precision of legal provisions. They are among the nastiest members of the legal profession.
We see them at work everywhere, subverting the tacit moral consensus that underpins our legal order. They hide behind the expanded meanings of terms like “presidential prerogative” and “executive privilege.” To them, everything that the law does not explicitly prohibit is permissible under the all-encompassing construction of presidential prerogative.
Feudal lords in traditional societies enjoyed far more undifferentiated powers than today’s public officials. Yet they were restrained in the exercise of these powers by a strong sense of the moral responsibility attached to their status. That is what nobility meant. We did not have an aristocracy in our country, but the habit of self-restraint nonetheless characterized the behavior of an early generation of Filipino leaders. It was known as delicadeza.
This norm sanctioned excess, smugness, self-promotion, and the misuse of one’s powers and prerogatives. The mechanisms for its enforcement were not the Ombudsman or the courts. No one needed to file any case in order to assert and uphold what was proper. The mere hint of public censure was more than enough to set things right. Honor always trumped power, and people did not hesitate to resign to protect what was left of their good name.
A President Quezon, or Roxas, or Osmena, or Magsaysay would have done everything to personally respond to public criticism of wasteful spending while on official visit abroad. In the first place, one doubts very much if any of these former presidents would have brought with them such large retinues of government officials as President Macapagal-Arroyo has habitually done on her foreign visits. None of them would have accepted a lavish dinner treat from a congressman, or much less used public money to feast on caviar and expensive champagne in an upscale eating place in a foreign city. They would have been very conscious of the impression that their presence could generate among the other guests. Delicadeza would have prevailed and restrained them at every turn.
But norms have changed dramatically. The old values of a decorous age are long gone. The internal restraints provided by an ingrained sense of propriety have all but been eroded. The codes of conduct that have found their way into our laws have not been able to fulfill the same function. And the decline of moral consensus has not paved the way for the emergence of a strong legal system that could stabilize expectations about acceptable behavior. In short, we are caught in the throes of a transition where everything is permitted as long as you don’t get caught, or you can hire a good publicist to manage your image, or retain a good and well-connected law office.
But, to be fair, this kind of behavior – the ceaseless scheming to stay within the letter of the law while ignoring all ethics and sense of propriety — has not been the monopoly of Ms Arroyo. It appears to have become part of the routines of public office. How else must we view the premature campaigning that our prominent public figures have launched in flagrant violation of the spirit and rationality of our election laws? Yes, their lawyers could argue that technically they are not yet candidates and therefore they cannot be held liable for violation of the provision on premature campaigning. But this is precisely what we are saying here. They cannot pretend to be ignorant of the spirit of the law; they know they are violating it. Does the fault lie in the way our laws are written? No. Most of our laws are adequately written, but they cannot be protected against those who are bent on finding and exploiting their loopholes.
We all know we cannot live like this. Anyone who thinks that we can establish a functioning social order solely on the basis of explicitly written laws does not know the first thing about human societies. The things that hold societies together are mostly unstated. Tacit understandings, notions of decency and propriety, concepts of what the responsibilities of leadership are in our time and what it means to be human — these are all unwritten, yet they underpin every constitution and every contract we draw in our daily lives.
Cory Aquino stood out as an exemplary leader because deep in her heart she knew what was permissible and what was not. No one had to tell her.
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