Column: Big Talk about morality

Thoughts about “moral force,” with Emilio Jacinto as starting point. Published on April 14, 2009

Last month, the Inquirer hosted a score of students from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic. The college students, many of them media studies majors, asked inexhaustible questions about both specific topics (details about journalist killings in the countryside, for instance) and large, general issues (the role of media in a democracy, the future of print). The lively give-and-take ran a couple of hours, and we had to call an end to it only because they were already late for their next appointment.

The second kind of question was the type my Jesuit classmates in philosophy a generation ago used to call Big Talk—the opposite, naturally enough, of small talk. It is the sort of question working journalists do not really think about on a daily basis; if my experience in five newsrooms is any guide, journalists worry about the day’s stories and the inevitability of deadlines. (The anecdotal evidence about the making of “The Elements of Journalism” says much the same thing. The second kind, to paraphrase Kovach and Rosenstiel’s summing-up, is like asking a journalist whether she believes in God. An important question, but almost impertinent.)

But it is a type of question more journalists must come to terms with—if only to explain and defend the sometimes freewheeling practice of a working press to the future civil servants and private-sector leaders of prim, proper Singapore.

* * *

 What follows is a journalist’s attempt at Big Talk—not about something the Singaporean students asked (perhaps we needed more time) but about two influential but competing ideas circulating in the public square. A straightforward question joins the issue: What, in truth, is the role of morality in our republic? The first idea is exemplified in Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s call for a “moral force.” He told a business forum: “It is very obvious that the main problem of the country is moral decadence.”

The second, competing idea is argued most forcefully in the Inquirer columns of the sociologist Randy David. Last February, for instance, he drew the limits of morality: “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.”

I find both positions compelling. And yet they seem to be mutually incompatible.

* * *

Something the eminent Jesuit historian John Schumacher wrote about 15 years ago suggests a way around the incompatibility. Perhaps we can base the country’s moral code, in large part, on the founding principles of the Katipunan. Schumacher wrote: “what the Philippines as a nation and the Philippine Roman Catholic Church itself are precisely in need of at this time is a secular national-civic ethic: one that does not impose Catholic moral doctrine on Filipinos of different beliefs, but takes into account the Catholic tradition which underlies so much of the national culture.”

The writings of Emilio Jacinto should form part of the nucleus of that national-civic ethic, Schumacher argued. He offered a sweeping answer to likely Catholic objections that children of Vatican II can relate to. “There is little or nothing in the thought of Jacinto to which a modern Catholic theologian would take exception, and the same can be said of other Christian denominations as well.”

Of Jacinto’s writings, the most fundamental is the “Kartilya”—translated (by Gregorio Nieva) in Epifanio de los Santos’ essay on the hero (edited by Teodoro Agoncillo) as “Rules of the Association of the Sons of the People” (Mga Aral nang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan).

He all but begins, almost like Tocqueville in “Democracy in America,” with the principle of equality. “Maitim man at maputi ang kulay ng balat, lahat ng tao’y magkakapantay; mangyayaring ang isa’y higtan sa dunong, sa yaman, sa ganda; ngunit di mahihigtan sa pagkatao.” The Nieva/De los Santos translation is rather ornate: “Whether our skin be black or white, we are all born equal: superiority in knowledge, wealth and beauty are to be understood, but not superiority by nature.” Schumacher’s version is much simpler, more powerful: “Whether their skin be dark or white, all human persons are equal; one may be superior in knowledge, in wealth, in beauty, but not in being more human.”

Equality of persons is a theme that Jacinto—who was wounded in battle, taken prisoner by the Spaniards and died at the age of 23—returned to again and again. In “The People and the Government,” he took pains to explain the natural “need” for “one who has power over the rest for direction and good example”—in other words, a government. But he described the temporary, derivative nature of that government. “Briefly, we must not recognize the superiority of the ruler as an attribute attached to him by nature. The obedience and respect due him are derived from the power conferred upon him by the people themselves, a power which is the integration of all the powers of the people.” (Nieva/De los Santos)

More moral principles are embedded in the Kartilya, which both anticipates Apolinario Mabini’s “True Decalogue” and recalls the tradition of “public virtue” that shaped the birth of the American republic. But equality is basic, and meant to be useful, to be used in service. In the context of a republic, therefore, “moral renewal” must mean working for something greater than ourselves. Jacinto’s first ideal (in Schumacher’s translation) reads like a call to arms all Filipinos can hear: “The life which is not spent for a great and sacred cause is like a tree without shade, if not a poisonous weed.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Column: Big Talk about morality

  1. but say to say, as been seen on tv last time, the grandson of jacinto having the same name and his great grandfather is like many of the filipinos of his time…poor, living in a squatters area.

    is this the price that heroes have to pay? while the new breeds of politicians and with big names are living la vida loca with cash?

    equality! the ever-elusive virtue on this land. when will you come?

  2. Thanks, Elmot. I did not know that, about Jacinto’s descendants. I agree with you, equality seems ever-elusive.

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