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COMMENTARY

Humanism and the death penalty

12:05 AM January 30, 2017

In his 1950 Nobel Prize lecture, Bertrand Russell reminded us that “the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence.” This optimistic conclusion was derived from the belief that liberal education can foster the value and agency of each person. Liberal education looks into the sciences rather than biblical revelation in order to advance a way of understanding the world. The right thing to do, in this regard, is to introduce the human individual to secular principles that will ultimately make one’s mind truly independent.

For Cicero, humans are to be distinguished from animals through language. Speech, when linked with the power of thought, enabled citizens to dialogue with one another and live in harmony “under the rule of law.” Humanism teaches us that only an open mind trained in the arts, poetry, and philosophy can solve the problems bedeviling society. Thus, humanist education in our universities is an attempt to liberate the young from the stifling rigidity of ideology and dogma.

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The Enlightenment taught that the love for humanity necessitates the love for reason. Humanism means the adherence to reason as the sole creator of virtue. Humanism, in this way, is an ideology as well as a religion. The humanist pursues one particular truth—that the human being is above all else. This is the spirit of the liberal tradition, which is also a way of looking at the world. It takes root in the nature of the individual as a free and rational being.

Humanism, of course, is an intellectual program. Its liberal stance primarily asserts the primacy and value of human freedom. A young man in college will learn that it is through the moral good that a person secures his place in the whole scheme of things. But what is the meaning of this moral good? The ultimate moral good, it can be argued, begins with the individual’s desire to do one’s duty to society. But this human desire must emanate from an unencumbered will.

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Moral education in the country is based only loosely on the humanist tradition. This is because teachers themselves, including the school environment, unmistakably carry certain values that are already embedded in our own culture. “We are what we believe we are,” says C.S. Lewis. Filipinos are a result of an irreversible historical process. Philippine society has a very different situated identity from the West.

For instance, we have never been critically minded. We do not question the lack of decency of some of our public officials. But what is more appalling is that all the violence right now unfolding before our eyes might only come as impersonal. We no longer see the victim as a human being. Indeed, we must ask: What has happened to humanist education in this country? Have we Filipinos misplaced all the values of humanity?

The current mood of the Filipino public is that it thinks any individual can be sacrificed for the sake of our brand of social solidarity. As such, as long as public interest is used to justify the death penalty for a boy as young as 12, some Filipinos might believe that no moral wrong is being committed. Most of us reason that this very young “criminal,” who has now become an enemy of the state, himself knows that what he has done can bring him instantaneous death. Yet, in so doing, we have disregarded the reality of unjust social structures that served as virulent preconditions for the anatomy of a crime.

It is unconscionable for many among us not to realize that bringing the tragic death sentence back, even to a person who is so young, only makes manifest that our society has not overcome the pangs of elitist rule, and this is because the poor will remain at the receiving end of the infirmities of our legal system. In reality, those who are in power are just taking advantage of our tragic sense of nationhood that has characterized our fate as a people.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University and is the author of “Ethics and Human Dignity.”

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TAGS: Commentary, death penalty, humanism, Humanity, Nobel Prize, opinion
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