The inauthenticity of the moral high ground

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

CRITICS argue that the Supreme Court took the legalistic and technical route to settle the issue of the Marcos burial, and failed to take the moral high ground.

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They also accuse the President of taking the same route.

These people forget that the state is not a moral entity, but a legal one. If there is any standard that the state would deploy, it is on the basis of ethics and not on morality.

To be ethical is to act within the principles that are commonly understood to be a more universalstandard of behavior and are based on individual or legal norms. Legal standards become a source for making ethical judgments where the law becomes a norm.

A judgment based on morality is one that is made based on social and cultural norms that may differ across and even within societies. Moral standards are usually expressed in the form of general rules and statements but are not easily universalized since it is very much taken to be defined in particular cultural and social contexts.

Thus, any appeal to moralityis often operationalized in the context of ethical violations. We only judge public officials on the basis of their ethical conduct. We ask for a certificate of good moral character from offices and organizations, but this is issued on the basis of how we have obeyed their norms and rules, and not on our inner goodness or evil.

A person cannot be denied a certificate of good moral character just because she has an affair with her driver-bodyguard. Such immoral act must be translated into a legal judgment where the official is brought to court, undergo due process, and is found guilty. In the end, the immoral conduct is transformed into an ethical violation of legal and technical parameters set by law. In short, moral standards find themselves expressed in moral laws that are laws nevertheless, and are in the form of a system of guidelines for proper ethical conduct.

The only domain where moral edicts are enforced is in religion. But here, the moral standards applyonly to those who practice the faith, and these are never seen as universal. The moral basis of monogamy in Christianity is institutionalized in marriage. Yet the same institution allows Muslim men to have four wives, which is perfectly moral under the construct of Islam. This is because in a modern secular society, there is recognition that people are free to choose their own moral grounding relative to their own faith, or even not to choose any at all. Atheism is a legal option in a constitutional democracy, even if not believing in God isimmoral to a devout Christian or Muslim. Prostitution is generally seen as immoral, but could be legal; so are abortion, same sex marriages, and the death penalty.

It is in this doctrinal foundation of a modern, secular state that any appeal to moral high ground for public conduct is unenforceable. More so, if such is made in relation to an action that just upheld the technicalities of the law, as in the case of the Marcos burial.

The issue was indeed morally divisive, considering that people have different moral perspectives. And in situations where there is conflict, the final arbiter to determine the rightness of an act are not the moral doctrines based on faith; or the moral scruples defined bysocialization, social class and education; or the moral demands emanating from those who seek justice as retribution for the pain and suffering felt. The adjudicator is the law, and its ethical basis is on legal principles and norms.

And this is exactly what the Supreme Court has rendered.

It ruled that there is no law that prevents the burial.

It is not a moral judgment, for the Court is not an arbiter of morality. The Court is not like the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus for being a heretic and violating Jewish morality. It is not like the religious courts that condemned women to be burned for allegedly offending Christian morality by practicing witchcraft. It is not even like the secular courts that oversaw the Salem witchcraft trials where even the state was a bearer of religious morality.

We are a secular state. We are a government of secular laws. The state is barred from enshrining into law a particular rubric for morality. It can only tell us what is legally right according to the ethical standards set by law.

The people who expect the Court and the President to have used the moral high ground as basis for judgment are miserably out of tune with the doctrine of a secular, modern state.

Some of them are also miserably confused, if not inauthentic.

They are advocates of the moral high ground, yet they also have no qualms about demanding the desecration of the dead, which is patently immoral under any kind of religion, and more so if judged according to our own social and cultural norms.

antonio.contreras@manilatimes.net

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15 Comments

  1. Thank you Antonio P. Contreras! The light of day: The people who expect the Court and the President to have used the moral high ground as basis for judgment are miserably out of tune with the doctrine of a secular, modern state.

    Some of them are also miserably confused, if not inauthentic.

    They are advocates of the moral high ground, yet they also have no qualms about demanding the desecration of the dead, which is patently immoral under any kind of religion, and more so if judged according to our own social and cultural norms.

  2. I think the Supreme Court is justified in not disallowing the burial of the late dictator because, indeed, it is a political question. However, the decision of the president on the matter is totally on him. He had the prerogative to allow or disallow it. The reason why the decision is left on the president is because there are a million factors to be considered and no law can cover everything- a few of them would have to deal with History, public sentiments, and, yes, even morality. It is always a battle for which decision is moral, and there are instances when the high ground is undeniable. Going for a revisionist view of history for the sake of returning a political favor of a campaign supporter and financier is definitely in the low end of that battle.

  3. dapat sinabi mo na lang prof ay ang pilipinas ay democratic govt governed by duly elected officials and NOT THE CBCP. hindi maiintindihan yan ng mga naginarte na moral daw sila. ang alituntunin at batas aywalang tinitingnan na religion. ito ay para sa lahat at hindi lang sa mga katoliko kahit na sabihin pang katoliko ang mayorya na pilipino. hindi ga kaya nga sa konstitusyon ay may separation ng church and state? the church can voice its opinion on any matter but it cannot or should not force the gov’t to follow its’ dictates. just saying

  4. The human mind can clearly see with the power of reason. The ability to reason is what started all the clear thinking through the ages. Notable are the Greek thinkers. Of course Greek had to be the medium. Hence, the word ethics. Good behavior guided by good clear thinking developed into customary behavior over time. Customs were expressed in Greek as ethos. Then came the shift in the medium of expression to Latin. Customs were expressed in Latin as “mores”. “Moral” actions were in accord with the good customs; immoral actions were not.

    Transformation raised the level of authenticity. Christianity came along. The power of reason incorporated the values customarily lived by the Christians. For the Greek Christians, ethical behavior became Christian living. And for the Roman Christians, moral conduct became “The Way, The Truth, The Life.”

    As Greek and Latin receded and the modern languages became the new media of expression, people search anew for meaning as confusion set in. To clear up the confusion, I suggest that ethics and morals are the two sides of the same coin. The coin may appear tarnished by confusion. The coin may be buried in the frantic search for treasure. Authenticity of the coin is of paramount importance. The search is never-ending. Forgiveness is a start. Forgiveness is really directed at oneself and at a whole community. It is inward directed. If it is contingent on the “other”, forgiveness becomes suspect in its motives.

  5. Driggs Matabaran on

    If those opposed in Marcos burial in LNMB demand for moral high ground, are they in the same dimension in their desire to extract the dead body of President Marcos which now is already buried there? If they really believe so, perhaps it would be better if the Marcos family just let Marcos remains be extracted by the people who demands it and let them bury Marcos where ever they want it buried…Then let history judge us as a Christian nation… What had happen in Indonesia, a dominantly Muslim country, regarding Sukarno’s burial could be an eye opener for those having issues on Marcos burial as both presidents have similar corruption and human rights violation issues…

  6. Sadly, the author never mentioned that the ultimate determinant of what is lawful, not ethical nor moral, in this supposedly secular and legalistic society of ours, is never ideas, brilliant discourse, nor debate, but just plain numbers, 9-5-1. That’s legal truth.

    • It only shows that majority of the magistrates upheld what is legal. The 5 Magistrates voted based on their moral perception and bias.

  7. I look forward to the day “THE” Ateneo is involved in a situation where they have to take disciplinary action against a student and they be stumped when the student brings out the “moral” card. It will happen for sure!

  8. Dr. Contreras is a highly logical writer. This is because he is a scientist, social and political (I think biological scientist too having been trained and spent the earlier part of his career at UPLB College of Forestry). Scientists seek for truth in scientific manner. His writings are logics based on scientific methods, unlike manyy columnists who play the emotions of their gullible audience towards the writers biased goals. I am sure Tonton (as his friends call him) has his own bias (based on his logical appreciations of things along his career, life) like all of us. But basis of his conclusions are based on sound logic, scientifically derived. The article is a very good read.

  9. Benedict Tuason on

    Thank you for this opinion piece.

    Two things that come to mind:

    1. What I learn from your construction therefore is that legal judgments can be, in and of themselves, inadequate in settling moral issues. Given the diversity of social mores that come with living in a democracy, a law may decide on a moral matter but may not completely and fully resolve it. An issue can be legally settled but will always unsettle a section of the population whose morals are violated and infringed upon. Thankfully, democracy allows for freedom of speech, which includes criticism and dissent, and what has been clearly demonstrated in the case of the Marcos burial is the inadequacy of law to settle the matter. There has to be a moral response as well.

    Looking at the case of Germany post-World War II, we can learn a few things. One, apologies go a long way. It is well documented that even descendants of Nazi soldiers went on their way to apologize on behalf of their ancestors; a similar act is yet to be done by any of the Marcoses. State actions also go along way. The German state built a Holocaust memorial. They have enshrined their lessons learned from the Nazis in their national curriculum. In ours, such a memorial has really yet to be sponsored by the state. Our national curriculum is still ambivalent about how critical it wants to be about our own historical narrative. Thankfully, our government has made some recognition of the Martial Law atrocities and have recognize the legitimate claim of victims of this era.

    These are decisions that can be made by actors both state and non-state not purely on a legal level, but on a moral and, more importantly, civic one. As someone who was so hopeful when Duterte was elected, I still pray that he will see enlightenment on this issue. His stance towards the Marcoses has been a painful disappointment.

    2. On your point about our secular nature — Let’s be careful in how we use this construction. We are secular in that the state is non-denominational, yes. But secularism does not mean rejecting any structures that adhere to some sense of common morality. Collectively, these shared morals translate into what we call civic virtue. And when it comes to these civic virtues, our State is very, very clear in what means. It has stated so in our Constitution’s Statement of Principles and Bill of Rights; it is stated in the very Preamble. It is sensible therefore, for those seeking the ‘moral high ground’ to adhere to the virtues of “truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace” which are enshrined in the highest law of the land. It is by these virtues that we can judge the Marcos burial — Is it founded on truth? Is it just? Does it celebrate our freedom? Is it loving? Will it bring equality? Will it bring peace?

    Of course, these can all be debated ad infinitum. And yes, as you correctly suggest, the law would have to at one point decide some critical questions but by no means is it the only and final say in all things, especially moral disputes.

    Because if there is one thing that’s ‘inauthentic’ in all this, it would be those who champion the ‘rule of law’ and yet conveniently set aside the virtues and values our people fight for following from their belief in what our Constitution means. At the end of the day, the ultimate litmus test for any law after all is justice.

    Thank you for writing.

    • Justice is meted to the living, not to the dead. That would be unChristian, but very Catholic. If justice should be meted to the dead, then we should also dig up Ninoy Aquino’s remains for bombing Plaza Miranda, forming the NPA with Joma and Dante, and for starting the Mindanao War by betraying to the Malaysians Marcos’ plan to send infiltrators to Sabah to reclaim it for our country, or Cory’s remains for the Hacienda Luisita and Mendiola Massacres, right?

    • Acts 11:26 They were called Christians in Antioch for the first time. Around 117 A.D. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch used “Catholic Church” for the first time. Both “Christians” and “Catholic” are Greek. To say that something is unChristian but very Catholic is deceptively ridiculous. Christians and Catholic Church may not be patented but they surely go together. “Catholic” means universal. “Christian” is derived from the Greek “Chrism” or the holy oil used for anointing during Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination to the Priesthood. In the Old Testament only Priests, Prophets, and Kings were anointed. Can you put yourself in the shoes of the cosmopolitan Antiocheans who saw poor people receiving baptism and confirmation and being anointed? Calling these poor folks “christianoi” or “little anointed people” was the height of sarcasm. That sarcasm is as thick as butter coming from Amnata Pundit who is an INC.

      To get to the point: Justice is meted both to the living and the dead. God is the Judge who metes out justice. Luke 20:38 For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live to him. Catholics are reminded during the Mass for the dead: life is changed, not ended.

      The kind of justice that people who want to play God is so crude and contemptible as to be but a caricature of justice. Disrespect for the dead is actually beyond contemptible.

  10. Cesar A. Llorente on

    This article make clear how we will look at reconciling moral issues. Very good Doc. Thank you for taking time to come up with this relevant article .