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Why teach Ethics?

Teaching Culture and Ethics at the University of the Philippines has made me realize the importance of
making ethics more relevant to our daily lives. We don't have a word for "ethics" in Philippine languages, but it
doesn't mean we don't have a sense of right or wrong. We do, but the problem is that our notions of right or
wrong are hemmed in, trapped in rigid and moralistic definitions that revolve around "bawal": the forbidden, the

We've relied too much on religious doctrines and precepts for the answers, passed on to us by priests and
other persons of authority. I remember that back in grade school and high school, we had to go to confession
each week, and had a printed guide for our "examination of conscience," with a long list of sins conveniently
classified as venial and mortal, the latter in bold print.

To some extent, basic religious precepts, such as "Don't do unto others what you don't want them to do
unto you" (found, incidentally, in all the major religions), are still good guides, but life has become much more
complicated in the 21st century and we now need to deal with more substantive issues. For example, even in
high school, I used to wonder why missing Mass on Sundays was considered so serious -- a mortal sin -- for
which, one of my religion teachers claimed, one could go straight to hell.

Fortunately, I eventually found the more exciting, and kinder, world of ethics, one that emphasizes what
we should and can do to create a "better" world. Ethicists have come up with much more complicated criteria
for dealing with moral issues, the questions guided by principles like autonomy (Are we violating an
individual's right to choose?). "Doing good" and "avoiding harm" take on new meanings: Whose good is served
here and what do we do, as in the nursing examinations, when there is a conflict between individual "good" and
that of the community? What harm comes about without a retake, for the nursing students as well as the nursing

ETHICAL AUDIT. The British newspaper The Guardian regularly carries a column called "The Good
Life," which poses common ethical dilemmas people face, and then presents an "ethical audit" consisting of
opinions of experts from particular fields. The columns have been so popular that the writer, Leo Hickman, has
compiled several of his articles into a book.

Hickman's ethical audits often deal with issues of personal food choices. A vegetarian diet is still
considered the most ethical because it doesn't cause any suffering to animals. For those who do choose to eat
meat, chickens are a bit more ethical than beef because, to get beef, you need to use large tracts of agricultural
land for the cows. (But, I've argued, chickens raised in cages suffer more than cows grazing on a range.)

Mind you, even a vegetarian diet has its ethical challenges as well. When choosing vegetables for
example, buying those that come in from overseas means you're neglecting local farmers. And the further the
source of the produce, the more you're contributing to polluting the environment because of the transport.

Hickman's columns are just so packed with ethical concerns. Once he wrote about how proud he was
purchasing Quaker Oats, healthy non-meat food, until one of his consultants pointed out that Quaker Oats is
owned by Pepsi Cola, which doesn't exactly have the cleanest record in corporate ethics.

GOVERNANCE, GROCERIES. Does this all sound like academic nitpicking? Nope. I think ethics is
quite practical in the way it makes us think more broadly, of the greater good, of the future, at all levels, from a
nation's governance, down to our groceries.


All too often, we've allowed little "lapses of judgment" to pass in the name of convenience, or even of
the "greater good." I'm sure that the people who cheated in the nursing exams were rationalizing: "I'm doing this
so I can migrate and provide a better life for my family."

The little "lapses of judgment" of individuals add up, until entire communities, maybe even nations, lose
their moral compass. I see it even in the university, where impunity is tolerated, even rewarded, all in the name
of preserving institutional harmony. Should it be surprising that we let the President get away with her lapses,
thinking, anyway, all this is for the good of the country? Hey, look, the peso is so strong; hey, look, so many
Filipinos now have jobs (albeit in war-torn areas and in call centers). Be patient, the good life is just around the

Ethicists don't go around saying, "That's wrong" or "That's a sin." Ethicists are there to remind people
that we need to perform quick audits in our daily lives, whether using the Rotary Club's "4-way test" or the
fancier stuff discussed in ethics courses.

I love the name chosen for Leo Hickman's column because of the way it captures the whole essence of
ethics, underscoring how the good life must come by leading a good life.

Michael Tan, PINOY KASI

PDI, 9-8-06