Truth, politics, and ethics

This is the final column in a series based on my Ramon C. Reyes memorial lecture entitled “Listening through philosophy: an ethical lens for the discourse on truth and politics”.

In his textbook, Ground and Norm of Morality: Ethics for College Students), Doc Reyes provides students with a comprehensive overview of how philosophers from Plato to the Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill grappled with moral issues. In that book, he also systematically articulated the elements of his moral philosophy, describing aspects of the moral dimension (such as action, freedom, universality, and obligation), reflecting on conscience, the personal nature and dignity of man, and natural law as norms of morality. He ended the book elaborating on the ultimate foundation of morality and applying the elements he has identified to arrive at a method by which to determine the morality of our action in a given situation.

As he did in 1984 reflecting on the Aquino assassination and as he used in his doctoral dissertation on Eric Weil, Doc Reyes relies again on dialectic thinking. Again I quote from our master ethicist:  “Thus in a first moment, man in his very being as openness to the good finds himself claimed by the final end, which expresses itself in syndresis (or the innate capacity to discern what is good and evil) and the universal principles of morality; in a second moment, man in his concrete situation reflects and comes to a practical judgment of conscience, and acts accordingly in view of the good; in a third moment, man, in acting and subsequently after acting, finds himself vis-à-vis a historical reality other than himself, with its own proper structure and tendencies which go beyond his own intention and direct control.”

Doc Reyes then describes the constant possibility of an erroneous conscience, which he defines as “a  conscience decided to act according to what man perceives to be the good, but due to misinterpretation of the principles or misinformation regarding the facts, comes to the wrong judgement regarding the good he ought to do”. Indeed, t is entirely possible that  by a judgement of conscience, a human being might sometimes find that what he has done with all good will and intention was wrong and or was inadequate. Certainly, this happens in politics all the time. But this should not destroy or disappoint. This historical reality, which to Reyes is properly the locus of action and of the concrete good, “leads man from time to time toward an ever wider openness, an ever keener or broader perception of the good”.

There is no other area more urgent to apply ethical thinking too than that of human rights. Unfortunately, its derogation or utter disregard is justified by societal aspirations and exigencies. I pointed this out in a lecture on Thomas More’s Utopia in 2016, citing the moral crusades that characterized the presidencies of Presidents Marcos, Noynoy Aquino, and now Duterte.

Whether it was the war against oligarchs and communist for Marcos, corruption for Aquino, and illegal drugs for Duterte, all these presidents, in my view, justified violations of human rights of individuals in the pursuit of the big national goals they have appropriated. The scale of course is different. The numbers of the Marcos era human rights violations and numbers of casualties we are seeing now in the war against drugs cannot be compared to the corruption prosecutions launched during the Aquino administration. We know that the zeal with which President Aquino went after former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not end up with her assassination in the hospital or elsewhere and certainly, eventually, due process did work with Arroyo’s acquittal. But that had to wait until the end of the Aquino term. 

Politics, no matter how noble, should not be the basis of how we treat people. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo should not have been detained. Senator Leila De Lima should be released from prison. President Aquino should not have unleashed all the powers of presidency against Chief Justice Corona. President Duterte should not have  done the same against Chief Justice Sereno.

In all these cases, I have no doubt what the categorical imperative is, and that is to follow scrupulously due process of law.

I emphasize to my constitutional law students  why due process is the most fundamental of rights and why criminal due process is the most essential of rights. Without due process, government becomes a monster. Without criminal due process, we can all be targeted and become victims.

In my last conversations with Doc Reyes, including when I visited him in the hospital. I told him that the more experience I had in politics, the more Kantian I had become. When I was younger, I was very much attracted to Marx and even Hegel, as contradictory as that seems, but dialectic thinking was powerful as a framework for social analysis and as political action. But it falls short, steeply at times, in guiding us to make ethical decisions. That is why Eric Weil, and I suspect Doc Reyes as well, in the end acknowledged that he was more Kantian than Hegelian.

I ended my Ramon C. Reyes memorial lecture with these three final points:

First, on the philosophy of Doctor Reyes. To borrow words from Martin Luther King, Doc Reyes is a drum major for constant reflection on praxis so we can continually transform our society and country for the better, for the nobility of politics, for the  categorical imperative and universal principles of morality, for doing the right thing at all times regardless of circumstances, for learning from one’s mistakes and accepting responsibility for them, and yes for personal conscience.

Second, we do not need to despair over the state of the country and of our politics. Dialectic thinking, in the way Doc Reyes practiced it, following Weil, Hegel, and Marx never surrenders to pessimism. There is always a synthesis that follows a negation. We have been here before, this moment of anti-thesis. It does pass. It always does. What is important is to prepare for that moment of a new synthesis, for still another  opportunity to renew this country and yes this world which is also in a moment of negation.

Third, and last, I reiterated an urgent appeal: We must begin to listen to each other again, create physical and online spaces for conversations, agree on processes that will bring us nearer to the truth, and find consensus in shared values and aspirations so we can move forward even if our politics are radically different and opposed.


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