Torn over moral greys



Yet again, for the fourth time in a half-century life, our country is torn by deep political division. This time though, it’s different in a very salient way. The country has to deal with a real-world moral grey: Is the President’s robust course of action justifiable to address what the electorate has deemed is a serious problem amidst government institutions that are ineffective or seriously compromised? In the previous three national schisms–those directed against Presidents Marcos, Estrada, and Arroyo–there undeniably was a simple element of good vs. evil: the people rising up against demonstrably corrupt, repressive, and perhaps murderous regimes that conducted their activities for the personal gain of the powerful. (I exempt the first President Aquino, even though she was the subject of multiple coup attempts, as these never had popular support).

The moral quality of an act is defined by three things: its intent, its nature, and its result. (I refer here to Catholic theology, which draws heavily from classical philosophy, not just the Bible, as I assume this is relevant to a Catholic country, though I know many believe only superficially so.) There is presently no allegation of personal gain in President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. The President would like to solve what he sees as a drug epidemic so pervasive that it threatens the nation as a whole. It would be useful to actually have some statistics that are reliable (I’ve read addict counts from 300,000 to more than 3,000,000) so as to be able to verify the premise. Nonetheless, the voters in our recently concluded election seem to have largely agreed with him, so perhaps that’s in itself enough evidence. There seems to be no issue with the President’s intent here in the moral context.

The voters, moreover, implicitly endorsed the nature of the remedy President Duterte promised to apply to the problem: killing those who are involved with drugs. He said so in every rally, and people wildly cheered for it every time. One cannot credibly claim people were supporting a mere assiduous enforcement of the country’s drug laws through arrest, judicial prosecution, and incarceration. For one, there is currently no death penalty in the Philippines. For another, voters knew precisely how then-Mayor Duterte “cleaned up” Davao. Just like they know how Mayor Lim once “cleaned up” Manila, and how Governor Remulla once “cleaned up” Cavite, among many widely-admired local strongmen. Indeed, then-presidential candidate Duterte explained his philosophy to a joint meeting of the Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines, and Financial Executives of the Philippines in a Peninsula Hotel ballroom jam-packed with members of those organizations and the media. He said basically (I paraphrase from memory), “In a society where the judicial system does not work—and I would say it does not in this country—the only way to obtain justice is extrajudicial.” Incredibly, this point was lost to the audience and the media as his more juicily scandalous lines like “I know you all have mistresses too” grabbed the headlines. Agree or disagree with the premise and/or conclusion of the logic, there is thought behind the forceful anti-drug campaign.

However, one must point out that voter approval of the extermination of drug users and pushers does not in itself justify that action. In a properly constituted democracy, majority rule cannot override individual rights. That’s the essence of a constitution that recognizes God-given rights: such individual rights are not given by the State and therefore cannot be taken away by the State. Indeed, the State is obligated to protect them, even from the majority of its citizens.

Even in a democracy, however, leaders must make life-and-death choices that are morally ambiguous. From Niccolo Machiavelli to Henry Kissinger, political philosophers have long made plain that in the grimy world of real politick, the choices are often among the lesser of evils. Thus, President Obama signs off on drone strikes in foreign lands against Islamic terrorists, taking into consideration how much “collateral damage” (read: dead innocent people) will be done by even accurate, GPS- and laser-guided bombs. With his National Security Council’s consent (an executive, not judiciary, body, whose members are appointed by the President), he killed Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen–with no judicial process. President Reagan tried to bomb Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi out of existence as well, unsuccessfully; the US Air Force killed his infant daughter instead. Many years later, with help from US operatives, President Obama and Sec. Clinton made sure Gaddafi ended up in his enemies’ hands for summary execution. “We came, we saw, he died!” Sec. Clinton gleefully proclaimed. President Duterte is therefore correct when he says, “If you’re not prepared to kill and die, don’t become President,” though one can argue that an astute politician shouldn’t make such truths so plain; and to his credit, his previous actions like exchanging himself for a baby as a hostage does indeed seem to prove he’s willing to die for a cause.

Refuse this soul-rendering (and endangering?) responsibility as a political leader, and you’ll be, well . . . President Cory Aquino. Asking coup participants to do push-ups and not executing coup leaders, all of whom should be subject to the uniform code of military justice (much stricter and more expedient than its civilian equivalent), may let one sleep well at night, sure of one’s peace with God, but it leaves a nation weak and in disarray, as swift justice is an essential element of every strong state and proud nation. And justice unfortunately, cannot always be clinically and impersonally administered in a tidy court, where no one person signs off on a death warrant.

Again however, there is an important caveat here that must be pointed out: in all the foreign examples given above, an element of war and/or self-defense against a deadly enemy of the state is present. Drug dealers, especially the small ones that have borne the brunt of the current anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, don’t rise to the level of imminent threat to, or deadly enemy of, the state. Indeed, as pointed out previously, drug offenses in the Philippines are not even punishable by death. Though most Southeast Asian countries mete out the death penalty to drug dealers, we do not. Perhaps because we are a Catholic nation, and the catechesis thereof permits the death penalty only for premeditated murder, and even then, the Catholic Church strongly discourages it for reasons of mercy, redemption, and sanctity of life. Our laws do not accept the premise, unlike our neighbors in the region, that drugs are so evil and devastating to individuals and society that drug dealers should be executed. In this we are correct—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the rest are wrong—and we are joined in this view by the most civilized and advance societies in the world, because intent matters in decent jurisprudence, and so does the state of the victims, which in drug-dealing are, almost by definition, persons with money they’re freely willing to spend. Drugs may end up causing heinous crimes, but these were not the intent of the drug dealer and the victim-addicts are themselves not innocent; the heinous crimes, when and if these occur, are prosecuted separately.

The third moral element of any action is its result, which unfortunately is always muddied in the exercise of political power as it’s harder to know counter-factual outcomes—the results had a course of action not been taken—the larger and more complex an issue is. The most famous example is the Vietnam War, a conflict widely believed today that America should have avoided. The Vietnamese people clearly desired to be led by Ho Chi Minh. America couldn’t let this happen because he was a communist, and thus held Mr. Ho back for about 10,000 days. But there is one person of particular note who disagrees: Lee Kwan Yew, who said that delaying the communists in Vietnam afforded Southeast Asian countries the time to properly develop their democratic institutions, preventing the spread of an ideology that history has proven to be–in everything from human lives and GDP– horrifically misguided. On a smaller scale, we face the same conundrum today: what would be the result if President Duterte faced the drug problem less muscularly? Would there be more casualties in the future, from drug overdoses, drug-related crimes, and ruined lives? Would it lead to wholesale disruption and corruption of our society and national institutions? With the strong action we’re now witnessing, will other drug dealers merely take up the business of those eliminated? We just cannot know for sure.

In a long suffering nation, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the current death toll. In some measure, I’m glad that terror is being struck in the hearts of street criminals as they seem to have thrived with little-concealed confidence for a very long time. (I wish the same for national criminals, but we shall see if President Duterte is as serious about corruption as he is about drugs.) And I’m also glad that people who voted for President Duterte while shouting for druggies’ heads are now seeing the result of their choice in full color, for who cannot be moved by the pictures we now see in our papers, particularly of the woman clutching the body of her obviously impoverished and drug-ravaged common-law husband. He’s probably all she had in this world. If this drug war is worth it, it’s better that people see the pain up close and personal, so they may properly judge.

In this gut-wrenching national division we now face—the first perhaps of true moral ambiguity and compromise—it’s also important to keep in mind that it’s never a good idea to give absolute power to those we entrust with guns. Being built from crooked timber as we are (a reality democracies accept and thus address with limited and balanced powers of government institutions, and one communists rejected to their ruin), it won’t be long before those guns are trained for more personal gains.

The withering coverage by the international press is distressing, but it is not international capital flows that worry me as these will move rationally over time. What concerns me more is the potential danger to our national character, which had improved much under the second President Aquino: whether one liked his term in office or not, it is only during his presidency that good governance or at least discussions thereof became anything more than risible. We were getting better, but killings coarsen a culture quickly. The high culture and proud people that gave us Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in music; Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck in science; Hegel, Leibniz, and Heidegger in philosophy, in less than a decade surrendered itself to the brutality and barbarism of Hitler’s national socialism. In the East, five millennia of Chinese culture self-immolated itself and 30 to 50 million of its souls in less than 30 years for Mao’s communist “great leap forward” and “cultural revolution.” Though President Duterte has invoked the specter of Hitler, he is no Hitler, but neither is the Philippines a Germany or China, we being a polyglot people with a short history of mostly colonial rule. For this reason, I hope our President treads more lightly in word and deed, and that this drug war doesn’t last long.


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  1. Sir, you are a yellow true and true.Marcos (evil), Estrada (evil), Arroyo (evil) and Aquino’s (saints). How revolting for an elitist who steps on the rights of the majority of voters to speak about morals. Just because you wear clean clothes don’t make you clean.

    • You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. Even if he was a yellow (which is far from being proven), better one that respects human rights than a bloody murderer and/or dictator.