Pragmatism and the issue of means and ends

THE MORAL of the story that is the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is a hackneyed one: a noble end does not a winner make. Your matching means must be noble as well.

The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional “some acts and practices” under DAP, but not the whole DAP itself. The ponencia appreciates its function as a “stimulus package” and admits that it worked. It says: “it has been adequately shown as to be beyond debate that the implementation of the DAP yielded undeniably positive results that enhanced the economic welfare of the country.”

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, in his concurring opinion, supplied the big “but”: “But, the frailty of the human being is that our passion for results might blind us from the abuses that can occur. In the desire to meet social goals urgently, processes that similarly congeal our fundamental values may have been overlooked.”

The means judge the end. The DAP case is a morality play, with the ethics of means and ends as its theme — where your moral purity is defined by the nobility of your means. The road to hell is strewn with good intentions.

The issue is a perennial one. In the 1960s, community organizer Saul Alinsky faced the issue for the activists of his time, and looked at it through a pragmatic lens. He believed with Goethe that “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action.” The ethics of means and ends is “so divorced from the politics of life that it can apply only to angels, not to men. The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.”

Alinsky fleshed this idea out in 1971 with a series of “rules” of the ethics of means and ends. I thought of passing them on, but in paraphrase, with annotations drawn largely from the situation surrounding the DAP issue.

First, your concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with your proximity to the action. Those in the thick of action understand; they take a pragmatic stand. The less you know about what’s going on, the more you tend to moralize and blabber on.

A parallel rule states: Your moralizing about means and ends varies inversely with your personal stake on the issue. What’s in a name?, a columnist asked rhetorically. For honest people, a good name is everything, he answered. That’s to conclude a well-reasoned defense of somebody who was being “savaged” in media for getting a fat bonus. He’s my brother. In several other columns, you read this time how he savages a Cabinet secretary, his wife and his daughter — caring less about their common surnames than about the common good. For what? Partly for lacking a moral trait, hiya, delicadeza. A bad name is a bad idea — it’s nothing. He’s not my brother.

Second, your moral position depends on your political position. What do you make of this senator who admitted receiving P50 million in pork barrel funds via DAP, but who is now calling for heads to roll following the DAP decision — and he is not referring to his head. Science is on the lookout for real cases proving that the reverse of this rule is true: that your political position depends on your moral position. The local Roman Catholic Church wishes science all the luck.

Third, in politics, the end justifies almost any means. A widely observed rule, but most widely denied. Hence, it spawned an important sub-rule: Honesty, if and only if it is the best policy.

Fourth, moralizing grows with the number of means available. You have a stimulus package that need money in the right amount, at the right time, right away. What are the means available to fund this? With only one means, you’re entitled to just one question — will it work? Nobody asks the ethical question. “Automatically the lone means becomes endowed with a moral spirit.”

Fifth, success or failure decides moral judgment. You never argue with success. Nobody spoils it by moralizing about the means; everybody is too busy claiming to be its parent. It’s oftentimes an open invitation to self-righteous indignation: never mind the noble end, the means matter the most. Often, too, the sanctimony spurs the cry for blood. A version of this rule states that moral judgment rests on winning or losing. History is written by the victor. There are no victorious brigands, only founding fathers.

Sixth, to the degree that the opposition denounces your means as unethical, these are bearing good results. Was the DAP used as an impeachment bribe? It depends on whom you ask.

Seventh, do your part — do what you must and what you can with what you have: but wear a moral mask. It pays to pretend.

Mario M. Galang is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms and a specialist in development and governance.

awr@aer.ph

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