The universe of moral equals
Nation-building is not the exclusive domain of the intelligent. Robert Young, in “A Critical Theory of Education,” says: “It is not the understanding of intellectuals which will carry forward actual changes, but the democratic process of many voices and practical problem-solving on a day to day basis.” Technocrats may possess the competence in terms of strategic planning and vision, but actualizing their abstract concepts will always depend on the common man. As such, to say that one profession deserves more respect than another is not only to discriminate against people, it is also to betray the moral basis of social solidarity.
All Filipinos have a role to play in the development of their country. The kind of job that people have does not determine their moral worth as persons. Precisely, decent living wages should be provided to ordinary citizens not only because it is their means of subsistence, but also because, and more importantly, as a human being endowed with dignity, everyone is entitled to enjoy a life that is well-lived.
In the universe of moral equals, no one should be subordinated to another. For instance, labor contractualization is one of the greatest evils in modern times. It does not only make the life of workers difficult, it is also terribly wrong because it treats them like tools. Perhaps, Theodor Adorno is right in saying: “Men become the kind of person who make themselves to some degree the same as a thing. Then, if it is possible, they make others into things, too.”
Masons, carpenters, plumbers and welders expend not only brute force but real talent as well in helping erect many of the magnificent towers that adorn urban centers. Yet, sometimes they are treated like slaves: They are deprived of important socioeconomic benefits, and their efforts are not justly recognized because of the nature of their job. Most of them, if not all, are belittled by those who think that holding an attaché case gives one a more privileged place in the modern scheme of things.
But what is truly unconscionable is not really the fact that there is a vast disparity between the living wages of blue-collar workers and white-collar employees. For sure, the former use their hands in building palaces for the rich, while the latter are tasked to produce sales and, thus, profit for the capitalist. But while both may have been diminished into mere means to an end by capitalism, still the prejudice against the person who holds hammer and chisel makes manifest a demeaning double standard in the society in which we live.
Without argument, a bright young person coming from a poor family who has achieved something for oneself should be applauded. But it is wrong to think that he or she will do better in life because unlike his or her parent who is a farmer or a fisher, he or she will be analyzing financial matters for big firms. Such a frame of mind is not only an insult to the very person who committed one’s whole life for the future wellbeing of a child, but also shows contempt and lack of gratitude for all the hard work of a good parent.
In a country where the question of life and death sometimes depends on who you know, many lives may have been judged as less than important. Undeniably, the bottom-line approach in business implies, as a matter of consequence, that poor workers may have been reduced to faceless numbers. In the material order of things, many people have been reduced to expendable commodities. But we should realize that the poor, however, do not have an intention to steal from the rich. As Derek Parfit correctly points out, a blind man taking away another eye from someone will never make his condition any better. Giving comfort to oneself by depriving another person of what rightly belongs to him or her will only create more problems.
Indeed, the moral aim of society is not the leveling of the status of all people. Total equality is an ideal that is both dangerous and not worth aspiring for. Without competition, talents are of no value. Bright citizens need not pretend to be dumb. It makes no sense for a beautiful woman to make herself untidy in order for someone else to appear pretty. The basic point is that it is not good to achieve absolute egalitarianism at the cost of the freedom of another. The value of individual freedom should instead be optimized to promote achievement rather than handicap.
But the meaning of this freedom should not be restricted to intellectuals. People from all walks of life must be given the respect they so deserve. Everyone, precisely as persons, deserve to live in dignity. The real problem, I believe, is discrimination, and not the nature of a person’s job. In fact, regardless of the title individuals carry, we all breathe the same air.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.