Bernardo M. Villegas
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Truth Is Most Basic Value

          In the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Philippine Constitution, there was a very large majority that still believed in absolute truths that must be the basis of a just and progressive society.  That is why we were able to purge the phrase "general welfare" from the old Constitutions and replaced it with the "common good" defined as a juridical or social order that enables every member of Philippine society to attain his or her fullest development as a human being.  When it was my turn to explain why "general welfare" can lead to dangerous consequences, I explained that the concept smacks of utilitarianism which inevitably leads to moral relativism.  Under general welfare, what is true and good can be determined by majority rule.  To convince my fellow commissioners, I gave the example of the Italians going to a referendum and determining by majority vote that a mother can kill the baby in her womb. I also referred to a hypothetical consultation that Hitler could have made with the German people about what to do with the Jews.  Even if the majority of them had voted in favor of annihilating the Jews, such a majority decision would not have justified the killing of even one Jew.  In the most important decisions in society, reason or natural law, not majority vote, should be the guide.

          That is why in the democracy in which we live, we must stress again and again that it is important to recognize that there are truths that are absolute and will never change under any circumstances. We cannot allow the "dictatorship of relativism" to rule over Philippine society.  We cannot accept the premise that truth is relative and changes through time and space.  We must have the confidence that our human reason can be the basis for determining what is wrong and what is right in constant and patient dialogue with our fellow citizens.  Since Christianity is the predominant faith in our country, we must not hesitate to turn to our faith for additional light in grappling with the more complex truths which are not immediately self-evident.  Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said on April 18, 2005:  "Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled fundamentalism.  Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself to be 'tossed here and there carried about by every wind of doctrine,' seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times.  We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

          As early as 1996, then Cardinal Ratzinger already saw the danger of the tyranny of relativism.  He saw it rear its ugly head especially in Western democracies:  "In turn, relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy.  Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better.  Therefore, all roads seek something common in dialogue, and they also compete regarding knowledge that cannot be compatible in one common form.  A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments.  Therefore, a liberal society would be a relativist society.  Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future."

          True enough, in the inexact sciences say of economics and politics, relativism is a  valid stance.  For example, there are no absolute truths as regards the form of government we should have in the Philippines.  There will be continuing debate and perhaps change revolving around the presidential vs. parliamentary form-of-government issue.  In economics, no one can dogmatize about the role of foreign direct investments in the development of the country.  There will always be different degrees of liberalization that will be defended by the political parties.  The same plurality of opinions should prevail as regards such hot issues as agrarian reform, minimum wages, taxes on cigarettes, etc.  There is little danger to human dignity if there is great freedom given to the various opinions concerning political, economic, cultural and social issues.

          But in matters of morals, relativism can lead to the violation of human rights.  As then Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1996:  "With total relativism, everything in the political area cannot be achieved either. There are injustices that will never turn into just things (such as, for example, killing an innocent person, denying an individual or groups the right to their dignity or to life corresponding to that dignity) while, on the other hand, there are just things that can never be unjust.  Therefore, although a certain right to relativism in the social and political area should not be denied, the problem is raised at the moment of setting its limits."

          When we talk about Filipino values, we must assign the highest priority to nurturing truth in our culture. Despite the great effort it will require, we must never tire to dialogue with our fellow citizens in arriving at the truths about the nature of man and society that can be derived from natural law, using the light of human reason.  There is so much common ground that we can have with our non-Christian brothers and sisters about the absolute truths pertaining to the right to life, the sacredness of the family, the inviolability of marriage, the preferential option for the poor and other natural  truths that human reason can discover on its own.  We should also have recourse to our respective faiths to bolster our adherence to these moral truths.  Unless we uphold the absolute value of some fundamental truths about man and society, our defense of human rights will be on very shaky grounds.   By embracing moral relativism, we will be opening our respective societies to the return of such ruthless and despotic rulers like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. For comments, my email address is