Does doing the right thing still matter?

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

MORE and more people are asking this question because of the way some of our high officials have tried to justify some recent sexual scandals. Last week, I agreed to address this matter in an academic forum, but because of some organizational mix-up, I ultimately had to forgo speaking. Nevertheless, I promised to have my talk published for the benefit of the students, as though I had actually delivered it. What follows is my undelivered text.

Many years ago, while visiting Munich, I asked a German friend to join me for an early morning Mass. It was spring, and the church was just a short walk away. Aside from the elderly priest and one elderly religious sister, my friend Babel and I found nobody else in church. After Mass, we started to walk back to my hostel. Not a single soul was in sight, and the bracing Bavarian weather recharged our spirits. We had to cross a small street, though, and the traffic light was red.

A Bavarian incident
As I started to cross the street, Babel pulled me back: “Pease wait, it’s still red.”

I found it absurd. On Fifth Avenue in New York, where more than once a year I used to visit, no one minded the traffic lights. Motorists stopped while pedestrians crossed the street and the traffic cops, if any, watched. But here on this small Bavarian street, with no vehicle or pedestrian in sight, my German friend was telling me not to cross because of a tiny red light.


“What’s the matter, Babel?” I asked. “There isn’t anyone on the road, why can’t we cross?”

“Because the light is red, and that means stop,” he said.

“I know, I know,” I said, “red means stop. But all of Munich is still asleep, there’s only the two of us out here.”

“No, I cannot cross, I just can’t,” he said.

“But, why ever not?”

“Because if I do it now, I might have to do it again. And what happens if my son would be watching me when it happens? What lesson would I be teaching him?”

It was a killer punch, I was floored.

“I’m so sorry I even mentioned it,” I said. “How blessed is your son to have you as his father. And me to have you as a friend.”

From that small episode, I thought I found something priceless. If all of Babel’s countrymen thought and behaved the way he did, then Germany had indeed risen from its past. And I had been given the privilege to look into the character and soul of the German people.

Right and wrong distinguished
At least two things stood out from that incident. First, the need to keep a clear, firm and permanent distinction between what is right and what is wrong. And the need to set a good example by doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. This is what morality is all about. It is intrinsically rooted in our nature.

In metaphysics, as Fr. Joseph de Torre’s Christian philosophy reminds us, we call it by its Greek name—synderesis, the first principle of practical reason, which orders us to do what is good and avoid what is evil. This principle speaks from the heart of every person, where God has written it as part of our human nature. We must live it through our words and deeds. I first learned this in my early youth, but re-learned it the hard way from my Dominican professor at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters.

Back in my ethics class, I regularly aced my exams and recitations. Yet at the end of the term, my professor gave me a nearly failing mark for no apparent reason. When I complained about the apparent injustice, he responded with a big laugh. “You could have perfected all your exams and recitations,” he said, “but hombre, this is ethics, and you were always talking to the girls, and reading all the books you were forbidden to read.”

In short, I failed to set a good example. I failed what was to become Babel’s test.

A code of ethics for senators
This particular incident became my north star when I served in the Cabinet for 10 years; in the interim Batasang Pambansa for six; and in the Senate for nine, mostly as Senate majority leader to five Senate presidents. In the Senate, one senator proudly bragged that he had already fathered 72 children by so many different women, and still managed to add two more children to that number each year. I was prompted to propose a Code of Ethics for senators, even though it looked like closing the barn after all the horses had fled.

The proposed code was met with amusement from some of my colleagues. My friends in the press started calling me “the Moral Conscience of the Senate” as a left-handed compliment. Some senators said what was immoral to me was not immoral to them, what was unethical to me was not unethical to them. And the committee chair pointed out that the Senate could not, by law or resolution, add anything to the qualifications for the position of senator written in the Constitution. She added that being of good moral character was not a constitutional requirement for high office, not even for the highest office. So, my proposal was axed.

In 1998, I found myself caught in a messy press debate with the most colorful presidential candidate. He eventually became the President, but that’s getting ahead of the story. My problem with him was that he had an excessive passion for women, and I did not think that was a acceptable qualification for the office. His response was strong and quick. His private life was nobody else’s business, he said. I pointed out there was nothing private anymore about his poly-amorous excesses. We had a month-long exchange in the media, which ended only when he said we should resolve it through some manly arts. I said I never used my hands to do the work of my head.

It didn’t start with Alvarez
I recall all this to point out that our current problem with morality did not start when Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez owned up to his extra-marital relations and tried to dismiss the scandal by saying “sino ba ang walang girlfriend?” —“who does not have a girlfriend?”—and the President tried to absolve him by saying “which lawyer or lawmaker does not have two or more extra-marital affairs?” The sexual morality of politicians has never figured in any honest debate, and no known womanizer has ever lost in an election because of his known excesses.

But it is not our political leaders alone who want to brush aside this subject. It is the common folk, the hoi polloi and even our so-called elite. Some of our politicians seem to believe they are exempted from the sixth commandment and are expected to imitate King Solomon’s poly-amorous qualities. At the same time, many seem to believe that unless it involves illicit sex, the question of morality does not at all arise. In our daily political life, the buying and selling of votes, the theft of public office, using the law to pillage, plunder or kill—these are grave moral issues, but they very rarely provoke umbrage.

We need to be morally retooled as a people. We should all be re-educated to know and uphold the distinction between what is right and what is wrong, and it should begin in the home, continue in the parish, in school, in government, in the corporate boards, and in all the various professions. Because every human act is an act of the intellect and the will, there can be no space in our society and in our lives that is untouched by what is right and what is wrong.

What the theologians say
Christ is the foundation of this principle. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss theologian, says, “Christ is the concrete categorical imperative. He is the formally universal norm of ethical action, applicable to everyone. Christ’s concrete existence—his life, suffering, death and ultimate bodily resurrection—surpasses all other systems of ethical norms. In the final analysis it is to this norm alone, which is itself the prototype of perfect obedience to God the Father, that the moral conduct of Christians has to answer.”

Heinz Schurmann, the famous German New Testament scholar, says, “the whole behavior of Jesus, interpreted in the light of his words, is the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). The believer is a person in whom the law of Christ has been implanted as a normative principle (cf 1 Cor 9:21)—he has the “mind of Christ” because the “truth of Christ” is in him.”

The tragedy of our time is that many no longer see man as the image of God but more as the image of his own creation. He has invented rights and freedoms whose ultimate purpose is to deny his basic dignity as a Christian and as a man. Nothing is good or evil in itself anymore; everything depends upon the consequences that may result from his action. Morality and ethics are in disarray everywhere. They have been robbed of their true human and Christian foundations.

Valid even for non-believers
In a pluralistic global society, the principles we live by should bind both the believer and the non-believer. They should be valid etsi Deus non daretur—even if God did not exist, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written; non-believers should be able to accept them, veluti si Deus daretur, as if God did indeed exist, even if they did not believe in his existence. It is only on the basis of how we live those principles that we could, in Pascal’s words, make God’s existence in the world credible.

fstatad@gmail.com

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2 Comments

  1. Antonio villanueva on

    Mr. Tatad I can relate to your article. I have the privilage to know someone who works for a local government. And sadly as we all know it, it is the hot bed of everything the Filipinos wished their government employees should not be: goes to work late, leaves early, wastes time in idle talk, indifferent to his responsibility, takes home supplies and arrogant to the people he is supposed to serve. Yet this person I know, in her own quiet way, does all her duties right. Her philosophy is that in the midst of all the anomalies and wrong-doing, she enjoys the peace of mind knowing that she has done her share of changing things for the better. The final result may not be now or in the near future, but we can hope because we have sown the seeds.