Sunday, February 6, 2011

Human Rights and Moral Education

(Conference Paper, PHAVISMINDA Conference, Tangub City, 2009)

What is moral education? This is the unpleasant question that I will examine in this paper. My intention is to bring into the open the root cause of all the evil pervading Philippine society. This paper puts into contrast, anxious of its possible failure, but hopeful of its potential, the humanist and the communitarian traditions that have inspired the search for the Filipino spirit. In terms of method, I will use Western philosophers and Filipino thinkers, hoping that the end result would enable us to play with the response to the question, and provide an opening to the window that leads us forth to the many possibilities of social change.

It is fitting, I think, for me to begin with Bertrand Russell’s humanistic conception of education. Noam Chomsky quotes Russell, who writes, “the humanistic conception regards a child as a gardener regards a young tree, i.e., as something with intrinsic nature, which will develop into an admirable form, given proper soil and air and light” (Chomsky 1971, 51). The individual and his glory, his assertiveness and free will, characterize the humanist tradition. This liberal spirit of humanism is anchored on the search for the meaning of the self – the apodictic ego, the very foundation of our epistemic judgments. John Kavanaugh succinctly puts it this way, “if I am to become a philosopher, then it is I who must philosophize” (Kavanaugh 1986, 20).

But the question remains – is philosophy’s intoxication with this “I” a real scandal for human thought? Let me begin by saying that it can be argued that the root cause of our moral problems is not a lack of moral intuition. We do not have a poverty of moral insight. Rather, when people do not even consider poverty a moral issue, when our children do not care about the value of paying respect to the old, and when the world continues to suffer because of greed and apathy, then it can be said that people truly are morally infantile.

The Humanist Tradition

In his 1950 Nobel Prize lecture, Russell says, “the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence. And this, after all, is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education” (Ibid., 57). From the point of view of social justice, making education accessible to all guarantees one basic entitlement of people under any democratic system – the empowerment of their autonomy. The right thing to do, it can be said, is to introduce people to conditions that will ultimately improve their status in life. For people to make better choices, they need to learn. Intelligence, in this sense, is something that we can propagate in individuals. This also means that people, in the pursuit of just terms of social cooperation, cannot be dictated upon. John Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice that “a person’s sense of justice is not a compulsive psychological mechanism clearly installed by those in authority in order to insure his unswerving compliance with rules designed to advance their interests” (Rawls 1971, 452). The capacity of people to enter into an agreement that will mutually protect them is based on a commonality of human interests. This proceeds from the fact that rational people can agree, if and only their autonomy, the ground and norm of that consensus, is not compromised. Thus, justice is invoked for the sake of the moral inviolability of the individual, which means, to a great extent, that any man or woman is not to be made less free in his or her effort to pursue his or her happiness.

Thus, the humanist tradition asserts the primacy of human freedom. It asserts the judicious use of human reason. Humans are not machines. Rawls states further that, “moral education is education for autonomy. In due course everyone will know why he would adopt the principles of justice and how they are derived from the conditions that characterize his being an equal in a society of moral persons” (Ibid., 452). Thus, through education a person finds his place in the whole scheme of social and political relations. Rawls adds that “equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth” (Ibid., 87). In the same vein, Chomsky asserts that “the radical reconstruction of society must search for ways to liberate the creative impulse, not to establish new forms of authority” (Chomsky 1971, 54).

Justice in the liberal sense primarily serves the individual. Institutions are so established to make human life more free. It is this freedom that ultimately defines the value of one’s humanity. Wilhelm von Humboldt, according to Chomsky, enunciates this by saying “whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness” (Ibid.). It is not uncommon these days for the government, including the best of minds in the bureaucracy, to require that the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom should be applicable to the demands of the outside world. The innate talent of any man or woman, if incompatible with the modern realm and economic scheme of things, are seen as useless and irrelevant.

But programming what our children are to study, which is a certain kind of reductionism, is nothing but oppressive and anti-humanist. Quite realistically, Russell, for instance, tells us that “the soil and the freedom required for a man’s growth are immeasurably more difficult to discover and to obtain” (Russell 1916, 25; also in Chomsky 1971, 53). Chomsky further claims that for Russell, “education should not aim at a passive awareness of dead facts, but an activity directed towards the world that our efforts are to create” (Ibid., 54). The humanist tradition picks this insight from Humboldt, who according to Chomsky, pursues the spirit of humanity in the idea that “to inquire and to create – these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve” (Ibid.). The humanist tradition, in this sense, relies on the powers of the individual, more specifically the moral powers of the individual, to transform an otherwise inconvenient world.

Humboldt adds, “all moral culture springs solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul, and can only be stimulated in human nature, and never produced by external or artificial contrivances…” (Ibid.). The basic idea here is that a free man is in charge of the affairs of the world, his inner nature dictating the tempo and the ends to which all human intelligence is devoted. External authority, Russell contends, only tends to “make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends, overlooking his individual purposes” (Ibid., 56). The strength with which man relies on is nothing but his creativity, his power to change an otherwise meaningless existence. The world is a big place, and there is no sense in being envious of others, for possibilities are infinitely endless for the human spirit. This is the ultimate claim of human reason. The expanse of the universe, most of which is unknown, is the playground for the human imagination.

On Moral Education

But the above humanist tradition, anchored on a strong affinity to moral individualism, has been a failure. Instead, I would argue that we should appeal to moral sentiment. From a historical viewpoint, we have withstood the test of foreign oppression and abuse, through nationalism and solidarity. As Filipinos, it is human solidarity that has defined for us the basic meaning of our humanity. Thus, I assert that there is a need to re-claim the basic meaning of such, the bond of solidarity that ties all of us as “one” – as a nation, a family, a people. Moral education does not consist in the answer to the question who am I? Rather, there is primal importance to our response to the question, why should I care for my fellow Filipino, the poor and the very poor?

Richard Rorty, in the essay Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality, argues that “moral philosophy has systematically neglected the much more common case: the person whose treatment of a rather narrow range of featherless bipeds is morally impeccable, but who remains indifferent to the suffering of those outside this range, the ones he or she thinks of as pseudo-humans” (Rorty 1993, 124). As I have stated in the beginning, I think our moral problems are not due to our lack of moral wisdom but rather they continue to disturb us because of our lack of moral concern. There is no inadequacy in terms of our intellectual preparation, especially in moral judgment, for in our everyday lives, more often than not, we think consequentially and are conscious even of our moral duty. However, the fact of the matter is that a young man today will no longer stop in the middle of his day to aid an old and ailing woman into crossing the street. Try and ask a jogger, well-built, along any of the country’s beautiful boulevards to help you carry a heavy bag and you get nothing but disappointment.

The Jesuit Vitaliano Gorospe in 1974 writes, for instance, that “one of the major challenges of the seventies is a morality that is communitarian, a socially and nation-oriented, a morality with a social conscience” (Gorospe 1974, 35). More than three decades thereafter, still, there is so much greed, so much attachment to materialism in some of the country’s most prestigious schools. Decisions in government, for instance, are made by people trained in the country’s elite schools, schools with a majority of students with no real exposure to the concerns of the poor. There is a need, in this sense, Gorospe argues, to “de-emphasize the traditional and static morality of human nature, duty and law in a direction of a contemporary and more dynamic morality of person, freedom, and love” (Ibid.).

Clearly then, the problem is not theoretical or technical. The problem is prejudice. Prejudice defeats the role of justice in society. Rawls tells us that “resources for education are not to be allotted solely or necessarily merely according to their return as estimated in productive trained abilities but also according to their worth on enriching the personal and social life of citizens, including here the less favored” (Rawls 1971, 92). The problem with liberal education is that although it is founded on the respect for the value of each person, the social conscience of that person is diluted by an emphasis on moral autonomy.

Rorty notes, “to rely on the suggestions of sentiment rather than on the commands of reason is to think of powerful people gradually ceasing to oppress others, or ceasing to countenance the oppression of others, out of mere niceness, rather than out of obedience to the moral law” (Rorty 1993, 130). But he adds that his “doubts about the effectiveness of appeals to moral knowledge are doubts about causal efficacy, not about epistemic status” (Ibid., 119).

Rorty argues that humanism has created the rational egotist whose concern as an individual is self-knowledge. This is, possibly, the kind of knowledge that elevates the individual from the peripherals and would make him or her finally see “the truth”. The hope is that after one sees the truth, one will finally understand the good. In finding the good, it is expected that one finally finds the very purpose of one’s life in the achievement of that good. But Rorty tells us that Plato simply “got moral philosophy on the wrong foot. He led moral Philosophers to concentrate on the rather rare figure of the psychopath, the person who has concern for any human being other than himself” (Rorty 1993, 123).

While people ask themselves about the true meaning of their humanity, thousands of children die every hour due to hunger. While people debate on the latest trend in fashion in exclusive schools, thousands of children beg on the streets, their dreams dimmed forever by the concern of others for “being and becoming”.

Moral Education in the Philippines

The above seems to be the case for moral education in the Philippines because of what the educator Celeste Botor considers as a western way of solving things. She notes that “the supra-structure of the present Filipino culture is of Western origin. Confidence in the ability of the individual to solve his problems, respect for individual achievement, and stress in personal rationality, technological expertise, stress on social responsibility, and personal legal rules are traits observable in urban centers” (Botor 1997, 36). There is an over-emphasis on the individual and on the merits of his or her achievements. The poor child, who wanders the streets clothed by violence, is often blamed for his miseries. This becomes clear when those who are in power discuss which mechanisms of just distribution are to be established for the common good. A child uncared for, most especially their disturbing number in our dangerous streets, should obligate any government to act and respond in the name of justice. However, the thing people ask is this – who cares?

In contrast to the above, Botor notes that the “the infrastructure of traditions and customs found in the rural areas relies on primary groups to solve individual problems, respect for social structure rather than personal achievement, and emphasis on primary group interest rather than individual interest” (Ibid., 36). It is not enough to enshrine justice and equality in constitutional essentials. Rather, in a very practical way, it is something that we should strengthen in our culture, most especially in the family. The Filipino family has been shattered to pieces, disturbed by modernity’s lack of values. Thus, the task at hand is to re-claim its primordial place in the scheme of things.

The spirit of the family as a coherent social unit can be seen from the notion of harmony. In truth, according to Leonardo Mercado, “the Filipino is less-individualistic because he wants to be in harmony with his fellowmen…it is a harmony which also explains the Filipino’s communitarian nature”. (Mercado 1974, 100) This assertion emphasizes the solidarity that is essential to our ways of doing things, a social philosophy that has been lost in favor of the modern and individualistic western lifestyle. For Mercado, western modern philosophy defines the person in terms of his conscience, liberty, free disposition of self, that is, of insofar as he decides for himself and freely disposes of himself. (Ibid., 102-103) Of course, this is a view that encompasses the social aspect of man, but which, according to Mercado, is a definition “from the individualistic viewpoint”. (Ibid.) For Mercado, the Filipino looks at the person “from the viewpoint of harmony”. The Filipino “wants to be in harmony with his fellowmen just as he wants to be in harmony with himself”. (Ibid.)

The value of human life does not seem apparent in the eyes of those who feel nothing for the abandoned children, the uncared for in orphanages or the homeless. The reason is simple – these children are not their children. Thus, it is almost impossible for them to show love and affection.

It is the family’s sense of value that enables the young to see the importance of caring for the many unwanted lives around us. Such is the case because the experience of being loved and being cared for ultimately opens our soul to the pain and suffering of people who are in need. Values, therefore, need to be seen, just as love also needs to be shown in a very concrete sense. The essence of a value, Gorospe says, is not a tendency in things which points to their purpose, but value is seen by intuition or insight (Gorospe 1974, 46).

Without love, it is easy to reduce the person into a mechanical function or an elementary purpose. For instance, in the case of many old people in the western world, a world founded on consumerism and material wealth, meaning is to be equated with productivity. A person who ceases to contribute to the over-all good of society through his productivity becomes a burden, a liability and is therefore dispensable. In such a situation, it is the consumer society that dictates whether or not others deserve their humanity.

I pray to God that such is not the kind of world that we are preparing our students for. But the point is that we train students to become rational egotists, whose question, Rorty asserts, is “why should I be moral?” (Rorty 1993, 133) The right question, Rorty would say, is rather “why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” (Ibid.) It is not knowledge of the good that makes one do the good. People are aware of their moral duties but they would not oblige. It is not therefore a question of personal conscience. Rather, it is a personal commitment, an effort on the part of the individual to do things as a gesture of kindness or love. Gorospe echoes this idea when he says that “it is really one’s personal orientation or prior commitment which determines what is real for a person. The persons whom I understand, love and am committed to are very real to me…the nature of the real is personal or better still, inter-personal” (Gorospe 1974, 191).

The task at hand is for people to begin to realize that the person next to him is a real human being. Just as an egotist desires achievement and the novelty of his or her ideas, a person, born poor and less endowed with creative skills, also desires to live a life that is free. For Gorospe, the “new meaning of freedom is equality and participation” (Ibid., 420). He says:

“Every man is the equal of every other so far as human dignity is concerned and ought to have the opportunity to become free by social, political, and economic participation in society. Individual freedom is understood as the basic human freedom to become fully human. But we cannot fully develop as human persons unless we contribute our share towards the development of the human community” (Ibid.).

In conclusion, the hope is that moral education will make people recognize the dignity of each and every human being, and with that what follows is respect for human rights. Thus, moral education should serve the very foundation of a just society. The recognition of the rights of others indicates that people live in this world through mutual respect and tolerance. It then tells us the there is a common culture, the “culture of human rights”, which is universal in the sense that it is about each and every individual human being, and that it is, to a very great extent, an idea that concerns the very purpose of justice in society. 

Elsewhere, I have stated that “concern for human rights and care for the poor are matters of political justice” (Maboloc 2008, 134). Education consists first and foremost in the appreciation that a “human rights culture” begins in the very way parents and children recognize each other in the family, translating their solidarity into the greater good of the community, finally hoping to create a society that is just. In the advent of this “human rights phenomenon” (Rorty 1993, 132), what follows then is the capacity of each person to value others just as he or she values himself or herself. Moral education, therefore, should enable men and women to recognize the value of each and every single life – not only of one’s own.