Ethical concerns


PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Executive Order No. 314, creating a President Commission on Values Formation, must be understood in terms of what has come before, and what it represents in the light of previous efforts.

As long as Filipinos have dreamed of independent nationhood, they have devoted time and energy to developing the ethical component of nationhood. Jose Rizal, who always had a fatalistic but ambiguous attitude toward revolution, insisted that independence would neither last nor have any meaning, unless the civic virtues of his countrymen were developed to provide a necessary foundation for nationhood.

The Katipunan could not wait, as Rizal wanted to wait, for generations to pass until a morally superior Filipino could emerge, but even as it organized and prepared for revolution, Andres Bonifacio promulgated ethical rules penned by Emilio Jacinto. The Revolution was cast from the very start, in moral terms, and much of the the rhetoric and symbolism of the Katipunan was derived from a belief in the inherent moral superiority of the Filipinos in contrast to the martial law and executions of the Spanish.

The Katipunan was eventually absorbed into a series of embryo republics until the First Philippine Republic was established in Malolos in 1898. Even then –or perhaps because of the fratricidal strife that marked the change in leadership from Bonifacio to Aguinaldo- Filipinos remained concerned that the struggle for freedom required ethical and moral underpinnings. Apolinario Mabini wrote his “True Decalogue” as a successor document to Jacinto’s Katipunan Ethics.

The First Republic fell, and the revolution crushed by the United States, in part (according to Mabini, writing in retrospect) because the revolution had been badly, selfishly, and corruptly led: in other words, it represented a failure in governance. Mabini died in the first years of the American occupation, but his writings and views, which bridged the Propaganda and Revolutionary movements, had a profound influence on the generation that succeeded him, which bridged the Revolutionary and Commonwealth generations.

Filipinos didn’t achieve autonomy until 1935. In 1938, a commission was established by President Manuel L. Quezon (an admirer of Mabini), composed of leading citizens such as Jose P. Laurel (also an admirer of Mabini), Chief Justice Ramon Avancena (who had participated in the establishment of the Visayan Republic of 1898-99), Jose Yulo, Jorge Bocobo (President of the University of the Philippines), and Jose Abad Santos. They were tasked with drafting a code of citizenship and ethics to be taught in all the schools.

The code they drafted was promulgated on August 19, 1939, as Executive Order No. 217. It was –and is, since it remains in force- a successor document to Mabini’s Decalogue, and thus a direct link in both its objectives and principles, to the desire to establish moral and ethical precepts governing citizenship and nationhood dating back to the days of the Rizal and Bonifacio. The continuing relevance of the document has saved it from amendment or repealing despite so many administrations having come and gone –even during martial law, when he systematically tried to erase the legal legacies of his predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos left this executive order alone.

The Code of Citizenship and Ethics has been echoed by subsequent presidents –Ramon Magsaysay’s “Credo” most famously- but the emphasis would shift from values formation to what has come to be known as “moral recovery.” The theme of moral recovery began with Manuel Roxas, was attempted during Quirino’s incumbency, was seemingly achieved during Magsaysay’s brief presidency, was taken up again by Carlos P. Garcia, but made a deliberate national policy only under Diosdado Macapagal.

Macapagal’s attempts shifted the fight from molding young minds to salvaging an increasingly corrupt and inefficient beaurocracy. He revived institutions such as “Common Man’s Day” dating back to the Magsaysay era in an effort to make governance more participatory and public service more accountable to the people. His efforts, however, lasted only a single term. His defeat by Ferdinand Marcos put an end to the Macapagal brand of reform.

Ferdinand Marcos was influenced by the past only in terms of tactics and the external trappings he felt would buttress the totalitarian state he wanted to build. His vision of governance was authoritarian, looking to the Japanese-sponsored 2nd Republic for its institutions and legal precepts, but ignoring on a fundamental level, the moral underpinnings of his erstwhile mentor, Jose P. Laurel. The law, and ethics –morality, in general- were things to be used, not ideals to be fleshed out.

It was not until Corazon Aquino and the 5th Republic that morality and ethics were rejuvenated as guiding principles of state. The fragile nature of the state, however, never permitted a thorough national endeavor in this direction, what with so many coup attempts. During the Ramos administration, a period of relative prosperity led to ethical considerations being placed on the back burner. The Estrada administration, of course, despite its populist rhetoric, proved from the very start both uninterested in, and incapable of, either moral recovery or a concentration on ethical and moral development.

This is why President Arroyo’s new executive order must be understood in the light of what has come before. Commentary has been restricted to a backlash against what is perceived by the commentators to be a hypocritical –or at least glib- appeal to morality. The order, in fact, if one only takes the time to read it through, is a reassertion of government policy which has been in place continuously since 1939.

Its preambles are explicit in this regard. They state that “it is imperative that there be a continuing and intensified drive against graft and corruption, patronage politics, apathy, passivity, mendicancy, factionalism and lack of patriotism as a stated purpose and critical lynchpin of the success of this Administration,” which is rather obvious. This is an objective that must be distinguished from present day realities which, precisely if they are seen to afflict the behavior of this or any, administration, requires an effort to change things.

It states, further, that, “similar efforts by previous administrations to institute moral recovery programs must be further strengthened.” which gets to the heart of the matter. All Presidents since 1939 have committed themselves and their administrations to broad moral and ethical precepts which laws have tried to fortify (such as the various laws on ethics governing officials passed in the 1950s, 1960s and by President Aquino with her lawmaking powers prior to 1987).

What the present administration is trying to do, as it has tried to do in various ways with other executive issuances, is to tie together the many policy threads representing the efforts of preceding governments. The many executive issuances and laws passed in previous years have languished due to the ignorance of succeeding bureaucrats or a lack of political will. It requires a certain political and institutional modesty to actually arrive at an executive issuance that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but which, instead, fortifies previous efforts, breathing new life, in a sense, into national principles enunciated long ago.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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