The Limits of Political Moralizing

By Randy David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:46:00 05/24/2008

Having seen, in the past seven years, the kind of behavior our top political leaders are capable of, what I am going to say here may sound counterintuitive if not plainly wrong. I believe that if we continue to confuse political moralizing with political analysis, we will remain blind to the systemic nature of our political crises. We will forever be ousting leaders and putting in new ones, without ever making a dent on the mass poverty and social inequality that have plagued our nation since its founding.

The words “good” and “evil” pervade nearly every form of human judgment. As residues of a dominant moral code, these terms have remained particularly potent in present-day Philippine society. Thus, it is not surprising to find so much moral labeling and, in contrast, so little intelligent political debate on policies and programs. We see this clearly in the ongoing blame-game between the government and the power distributor Manila Electric Co.

As societies become modern, people will be less inclined to be judgmental. It doesn’t mean they become less moral. It only means they become more cognizant of the plurality of moral perspectives in a complex society.

This plurality comes not just from the moral diversity brought about by the communion of individuals raised in various cultures. More importantly, this is the result of the internal differentiation along functional lines of society itself. This is the crux of modern society’s complexity. Instead of a single moral code applicable to every conceivable human relationship, what we find in modern society is the emergence of autonomous spheres of communication, each governed by its own specific normative codes. [...]

Politics itself is undergoing a wrenching process of differentiation in our society, as it struggles to free itself particularly from the influence of religion and the family. The Catholic Church remains a powerful voice in Philippine politics. It is thus ironic to watch the present leaders of the Church delineate their role as “moral shepherds” in order to precisely exclude the exercise of political leadership that their flock has come to expect from them. They find it very difficult to shake off the memory of the interventionist role that the late Cardinal Sin played so deftly in the nation’s political life.

If the bishops have shown restraint in politics to the point of being accused of moral abdication, the same cannot be said of the country’s political families. [...]

The absence of strong and stable political parties representing alternative programmatic perspectives is at the root of our nation’s political immaturity. Instead of serving as a venue for criticizing existing programs and policies and offering solutions, our political system has become nothing more than a popularity and patronage game. In lieu of the open government/opposition debates that steer the course of modern politics, what we have are the behind-the-scenes negotiations and accommodations among the few political and economic families that rule this country.

Because there are no real policy issues on which they are divided along programmatic lines, Filipino politicians resort to name-calling to distinguish themselves from each other. That is why political discourse in our society is suffused with words like “evil,” “greedy,” “thieves,” “corrupt,” “liar,” “depraved,” etc. These are easier to understand and remember than the complex issues raised in policy discussions. Elections are reduced to a choice between manifestly “good” persons and manifestly “evil” persons. Wittingly or unwittingly, our mass media have done a lot to encourage this pre-modern form of politics. [...]

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Read also, "Caveat on Politicized Clergy", by Minong Ordoñez of PDI.