Morality in public life

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

The ironic thing of writing about morality in public life is that people immediately dismiss the same as plain naivety or childish idealism. However, the truth of the matter is that to require morality in public life, more so for our political leaders, is actually a matter of clear-eyed pragmatism based on cold calculation. We should indeed demand a more moral set of leaders (to be differentiated from the self-righteous jerks we have right now) not because it makes us feel warm and cuddly all over but because of the sheer benefits, material or otherwise, that it could give us.

In Gorgias, Plato makes claims that we would do well to take heed: given a choice between the superficial and passing rewards of material or popular success and striving to achieve a true morality in one’s life, the latter should be chosen without question. However, even with such a radical claim (and "radical" is a word carefully and deliberately employed for a position that was made more than two thousand years ago), Plato ups the ante even more: that to suffer harm while doing good is far preferable to doing harm in order to achieve material success. 

Gorgias is actually a dialogue that Plato has Socrates conduct with three separate individuals: Gorgias himself, who could be considered today as a media personality in the shallow ANC talk show host-type mold; Polus is ancient Greece’s equivalent of the activist youth that inevitably loses himself amidst the world’s complexities, and Callicles is the cynical know everything businessman or politician. Plato’s Socrates runs intellectual circles around the three, showing the ill logic of their positions, and how in the end (and in which perhaps is the boldest claim of all and one I happen to agree with as applied to present day Filipinos) the three happen to be in agreement with him all along and that they were merely denying or suppressing such agreement.

Plato shows us that real power (and freedom) is one based on the true application of one’s will. However, contrary to what the "anything goes" liberal or pro-reproductive health crowd tells us, this application of will has to do with the employment of reason and one that is free from compulsions. One cannot be considered free unless one is not enslaved by one’s passions. And one is free from one’s passions only by sheer order of the mind and the relentless application of self-discipline.

The foregoing, it must be emphasized, is a position framed not by a religious or devout Catholic (which allegedly smart people consider as a stupid thing to be nowadays) but by a philosopher utilizing pure logic born centuries before Christianity. But the consequences and implications of the same are clear, particularly as to how it relates to the present contraception debate or on the alleged equal rights advocacy for same-sex unions (repeatedly denied although such is obviously the case) by the homosexual lobby. While pluralism and tolerance are indeed necessary in a proper functioning society, yet such must be governed by right reason.

And the benefits of Plato’s path can be seen throughout history. David Brooks, writing of US President Abraham Lincoln and his battle with personal demons: "He would, of course, climb out of it. He would come to terms with his weaknesses, control his passions and achieve what we now call maturity. The concept of maturity has undergone several mutations over the course of American history. In Lincoln’s day, to achieve maturity was to succeed in the conquest of the self...He knew he was ferociously ambitious and blessed with superior talents -- the sort of person who could easily turn into a dictator or monster."

"Easily turn into a dictator or monster." The phrase is chilling when read in relation to a man "blessed with superior talents" but horrifying in the context of an inferior, untalented, or immature person that was handed with the reign of power.

The bright side, as it usually is, lies with our very young. Contrary to their self-indulgent, self-righteous, self-obsessed predecessors, the youth today in their tens and teens seems more grounded, disciplined, and more intellectually curious in the honest sort of way. Interestingly, a Guardian article (in March 2004) introduced this fact: "young people are a lot more conservative than their elders might think. Forget Cool Britannia. Young people want a society that frowns on abortions, upholds the institution of marriage, takes a hard line on drugs, and punishes its criminals severely, a survey has found." And quite gratifyingly, contrary to the designs of liberals, the "study also found 92% believed in marriage, and 60% felt it was best for couples to marry before having children."

The Guardian article’s conclusion is a fitting finish for this article as well. Filipinos should take heed not to continue "the damage caused by the lax attitudes of adults inflicted on children." After all, better leaders require better voters.