Column: Moral vs moral

Published on April 21, 2009

Why waste time in a political column discussing morality, when politics is the art, not of the ideal, but of the possible? This kind of feedback tells me I must have failed to carry my point across, in last week’s “Big Talk” about morality.

Democratic citizenship is a decidedly moral undertaking; that is to say, republics are founded on the possibility of public virtue. It is essential, however, to distinguish public virtue from private.

Emilio Jacinto’s “Kartilya,” the founding document of the Katipunan, does not explicitly make that distinction, but is surely based on it. “The life which is not spent for a great and sacred cause is like a tree without shade, if not a poisonous weed.” By great and sacred cause, Jacinto could not have meant one’s personal integrity or even the well-being of one’s beloved family (for many Filipinos, the unfortunate true limit of our generosity). He could only have meant the needs of the emerging nation. To place the nation’s welfare ahead of one’s own—that is the citizen’s ideal life, and is the finest example, the pattern-setting template, of public virtue.

The implication is hard to escape, and even harder to accept: In politics, personal virtue is not necessary.We welcome private virtue in our politicians and in our government workers; we acknowledge that it is indubitably important in daily life; we realize it is essential for one’s spiritual salvation—but in politics it is, strictly speaking, not material.

* * *

Another way to labor the not-so-obvious is to argue that there are, in fact, two moralities. “We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility,’” Max Weber said in his famous lecture of 1918, published as “Politics as vocation.”

The ethics of conviction can be summed up (as Weber did) “in religious terms,” as “The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord.”’ Intention is all. The ethics of responsibility resolves the tension between ends and means in favor of the latter: “one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.” In other words, it is all about competence and consequences.

Half a century later, the legal philosopher Lon Fuller, in “The Morality of Law,” advanced the discussion, by distinguishing the morality of aspiration from the morality of duty. “The morality of aspiration is most plainly exemplified in Greek philosophy. It is the morality of the Good Life, of excellence, of the fullest realization of human powers.”

Failure in the morality of aspiration is measured by shortcoming; one falls short of an ideal. Failure in the morality of duty is measured by wrongdoing; there is a rule, and it has been broken.

Thus: “Where the morality of aspiration starts at the top of human achievement, the morality of duty starts at the bottom. It lays down the basic rules without which an ordered society is impossible … It is the morality of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments.”

* * *

What I think this means is that those who participate in the politics of a republic need to proceed from the ethics of responsibility, from the morality of duty.

I am thinking especially of those who are ambitioning to be the next president. An aspirant would perhaps judge himself from Fuller’s aspirational perspective: In this view, the presidency would be the reward of a life lived in excellence, the achievement of a bold bid at Maslovian self-actualization. The rest of us must judge him less mercifully. We ask: Does he, in fact, have the capacity and the competence to win a presidential election?

(That would explain this column’s recurrent obsession with the reality of politics: the importance of surveys, the influence of “free media,” the informing shape of public opinion.)

But competence, the ability to complete what one has set out to do, is only one aspect of public virtue. Other aspects are more familiar to us. A theme common to many Letters to the Editor is what we can call the Filipino’s fatal flaw: the lack of a sense of nation. Still other aspects are variations on the same theme: observing traffic rules, falling in line, claiming a stake in the Filipino ideal, instilling and inspiring pride in being Filipino, placing the nation’s welfare ahead of one’s own.

I realize, of course, that a privately virtuous citizen can be a paragon of public virtue. (This is what John Adams taught his children, on pain of being disowned.) But the opposite can also hold: A devoutly religious person can be corrupt, and the source of public corruption.

There are two moralities. We must not mistake the City of Man for the City of God.

* * *

At the same time, we must not stand in the way of a compleat citizen. Weber writes: “… it is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’” That’s it. More or less.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion

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