The state as the face of justice, oppression | Inquirer Opinion

The state as the face of justice, oppression

05:04 AM January 24, 2018

Politics in today’s world challenges those values that define for people the meaning of their humanity and values that, according to Leovino Garcia, “all at once permeate us, support us, limit us and yet subsist only by our consent and action.” Indeed, in very precarious and radical political situations such as now, the paradigmatic reality of the state requires that we understand it as some form of a living power structure.

What is legal is not necessarily democratic. Europe during its feudal age saw that there was no real distinction between the ruler and the state. That changed with the advent of modern democracy. But once again, the world as we know it feels like a crisis with the emergence of a kind of populism that is fueled by hate and vitriolic language. Still, there is enough reason to believe that the fate of this civilization hinges on our revered democratic ideals.

For Paul Ricoeur, the character of modern civilization is a “will to live.” Citizens need to reflect on the role of political power in their lives and see how and why the misuse of this power may erode the dignity of individuals who are constituted outside the state. Yet, issues such as the attempt to shutter Rappler and press freedom ignite a moral divide. Ricoeur explains to us that “for one, the State, has the face of the magistrate; for the other, it has the face of the beast.”


Thus, the state is simultaneously the face of justice and oppression. The state, in this respect, is a modern-day paradox. Theoretically, Ricoeur presents a twofold conception of the state — the “Pauline” and the “Johannine” interpretation. On one hand, the Pauline nature of the state is that image of a benevolent ruler who puts the interests of his subjects above everything. On the other, the Johannine nature of the state is the image of a powerful monarch who punishes and kills, if necessary.


Ricoeur says that “St. Paul invites his correspondents to obey not out of fear, but by reason of conscience: the State which carries the sword, which punishes, is instituted by God and for the good of the citizen.” Indeed, “the magistrate is God’s minister for good … ruling justly … when he faithfully fulfills his duty.” In the ideal sense, laws are meant to protect the weak from the strong. This is the only possible logic in a truly democratic state.

By nature, political power is not corrupt. Power is meant to serve the good. The powerful possesses a moral obligation to uphold what is fair and reasonable. The concept of the common good in this sense refers to a form of solidarity. For Patrick Riordan, the source of this solidarity is the community. However, politics is a question of power. In this way, Garcia is right that “while the history of technology is characterized by progress, the history of power is characterized by ambiguity.”


What is apparent in everyday life is the tension between fear and love. All leaders desire to be loved, but they are often ill-advised that the fear in the minds of people is important to stay at the top. The problem, however, is that the poor and powerless are the real losers in this equation. According to Garcia, “the State is not a stable order but a dangerous power.” Indeed, the state is sometimes marked by ruthlessness. The state is tasked to use power based on its stabilizing role. But since power means coercion, for this matter, only reasonable coercion is what the law permits, without which the state is nothing but a monster.

In the end, civil society cannot disengage and renege on its role. Moral protest is the right way forward. It is important to examine Philippine society beyond the rich-and-poor divide. Given the reality of moral antagonism brought forth by the kind of leadership Filipinos encounter in their public lives, the respect for human dignity must remain the normative standard in their pursuit of justice, truth and equality.

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.

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TAGS: Christopher Ryan Maboloc, democracy, Inquirer Commentary, legality, political power

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