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Is Dutertismo utilitarian?

If one asks supporters of President Duterte what made them vote for him, they would often say that he alone can bring about the greatest possible outcome for the people. Performing a moral cost-benefit analysis, they maintain that what matters is the result, which only he can deliver.

The slogan “Change is coming” thus summarized what millions of Filipinos had hoped for. What do we care about decency or virtues or principles if they can’t bring about the change we need?

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Thus, Duterte supporters can easily ignore or tolerate (even simply take as a joke) whatever character flaws he might have, such as the use of foul language and crass mannerisms. Even the thousands killed in the war on drugs are accepted as mere “collateral damage.”

“We’re waging a war, remember?” “Just give him time, you’ll see.” “Whatever bad things may be happening are just temporary, but the important thing is to move forward to achieve our goals.” “Let’s be patient, and instead of making noise or always criticizing him, let us do what we can to help him achieve his objectives. Anyway, it’s going to be what is best for our country.” These are some of the rationalizations one hears from Duterte supporters of all kinds—from the most rabid to the more critical and conditional ones.

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Students of ethics would readily recognize such moral reasoning as utilitarian. But is Mr. Duterte, or Dutertismo, indeed utilitarian? The quick answer, but understood in its vulgar sense, is yes.

But what if we asked the chief proponent of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill? Would Dutertismo meet the standards that he set for utilitarianism? The answer: No. Dutertismo will surely fail the test, on at least four important points.

First, utilitarianism does not start from scratch, but rather takes historical evidence into account. There is more than ample evidence showing that wars on drugs failed in other countries, notably in Colombia and Thailand. The former president of Colombia, César Gaviria, even personally warned Mr. Duterte that the drug war was sure to fail, as the Colombians only learned after many years of experience. But Mr. Duterte simply dismissed Gaviria as an “idiot.”

Second, while it is true that, logically, utilitarianism always opts for what is expedient, it does so with a broader sense of expediency in mind. For Mill, expediency is not just for me or for the short term, but rather for all those who will be affected (“the greatest number”) and for the long term. Mr. Duterte is known to despise human rights and show little regard for due process because, in his mind, they simply get in the way of his war on drugs. To him, it is more expedient to simply shoot drug suspects, never mind if guilt has not yet been established.

Adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights may seem inexpedient indeed, but only for the short term. Disregarding them not only will not solve the problem, but actually worsen it in the long run, thus proving to be far more inexpedient in the end.

The third concerns exceptions to moral principles. It is true that, as opposed to Kant, Mill admits of exceptions to moral principles. Many students of ethics thus all too easily favor utilitarianism, not realizing that Mill set very strict conditions under which the exceptions may be accepted.

Consider the principle of veracity. For Mill, veracity is one of the most useful social “goods” and thus must be held sacred at all times. Nonetheless, however sacred the principle of veracity may be, one may still make an exception and withhold it when, one, the situation involves grave harm (especially to an innocent person, and a person other than me) and, two, all options have been exhausted and the only one left to save the person from grave harm is the withholding of truth.

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How likely is it that a war on drugs that takes all the necessary precautions and adheres to the rule of law and due process can result in the deaths of thousands of people? At the rate that the number of killings is increasing, the “nanlaban” pretext seems to be the rule rather than the exception, based on Mr. Duterte’s pronouncements, and, as well, some actual video recordings of police operations.

The fourth and final point concerns a passage in “Utilitarianism” that seems to be often ignored: “Utilitarianism … could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character….” The limiting word “only” tells us that for Mill, nobleness of character is not only a necessary condition for the attainment of the goals of utilitarianism. More significantly, Mill also knew that it is only by building a culture of nobleness of character—in word and in deed—that utilitarianism can succeed.

A friend of mine who avidly supports Mr. Duterte once told me that our country must be going through some kind of cleansing, but that things will get better for sure. I do not know if my friend realizes that Hitler said something similar in “Mein Kampf”: “This cleansing of our culture must be extended to nearly all fields. Theater, art, literature, cinema, press, posters, and window displays must be cleansed of all manifestations of our rotting world and placed in the service of a moral political, and cultural idea.”

It seems not merely coincidental—and no less eerie—that Mr. Duterte compared himself to Hitler, saying he would be “happy” to slaughter millions of drug addicts, just as Hitler killed millions of Jews. Like Hitler, Mr. Duterte seems to believe himself to be a man sent on a mission of cleansing, and indeed he is relentless in executing it, deterred by neither local nor international opposition.

But Mill is correct: Not everyone can carry out a utilitarian calculation. The “greatest happiness for the greatest number” can only be entrusted to noble people. With Nazi Germany, history has given us a catastrophic example of what happens when the task of deciding what is good for one’s country is given to those who are sorely wanting in nobleness of character.

Remmon E. Barbaza is associate professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University.

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