Saving liberalism in the Philippines

“Everyone is orthodox to himself,” the great British philosopher John Locke lamented in “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689).

As one of the founders of classical liberalism, the 17th-century thinker risked his life and limb to emphasize the centrality of pluralism to freedom and, accordingly, argued in favor of separation of church and state. Contrary to his intellectual predecessor Thomas Hobbes, Locke rejected the argument that human societies need a “leviathan” (a beastly autocrat) in order to escape the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” anarchy in the state of nature.


While Hobbes zeroed in on the darker side of human selfishness, Locke instead placed his faith in reason and compassion. Locke believed in the inalienability of freedom and its central role in a fulfilling human life.

He argued in favor of the fundamental rationality of humanity to govern itself in accordance with a mutually agreed-upon set of rules. Locke believed in what economists today call “coo-petion,” the strange combination of cooperation and competition that has contributed to the flourishing of human civilization.


Over the succeeding centuries, biologists and social scientists from Nikolay Danilevsky in Russia to Nicholas Christakis in America have corroborated the basic assumptions underlying Locke’s conception of human nature. What evolutionary biology tells us is that absent compassion and cooperation, human societies wouldn’t have been able to evolve from a bunch of isolated cave folks into inventors of artificial intelligence.

Not that Locke was oblivious to the inner demons of human beings. After all, 17th-century Europe, far from being a hedonic paradise, was a cauldron of violence and fanaticism against the backdrop of a surging Renaissance.

“The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind…” Locke argued, citing Jesus’ compassion to argue in favor of pluralism. He believed in the centrality of dialogue to managing our disagreements without being disagreeable, because “[s]uch is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.”

Latest research in neuroscience shows that our beliefs, including political ones, are largely shaped by our limbic system as well as socialization at a very young age. In short, it’s almost impossible, by virtue of our divergent genetics and sociology, to ever construct a genuinely mono-minded society.

What Locke espoused, however, was a more “procedural” account of liberalism, as opposed to the more “substantive” ones forwarded by the likes of John Stuart Mill, who advocated for a more secularized, militant and ideologically potent form of liberalism.

As my colleague Lisandro Claudio wrote in “Liberalism and the Postcolony” (2017), liberalism in the Philippines has fundamentally been a modus vivendi for managing our disagreements as fellow Filipinos.

In this sense, belief in liberalism has been largely instrumental among our political classes and intellectuals. It was never deeply ingrained into the Filipino political psyche. And this is precisely why it has been relatively easy for authoritarian leaders, from Ferdinand Marcos to Rodrigo Duterte, to espouse a more illiberal mode of governance.


What we need, however, is a “substantive” form of liberalism, a militant defense of dialogue and engagement even against the most preposterous points of view. It was precisely in this spirit that I participated in a debate last Saturday against one of the most vociferous defenders of Dutertismo.

I believe that the only way to defend freedom is to be willing to have rational discourse even under the most impossible conditions—not in the safe embrace of your brethren, not in preaching to the choir, not in the warmth of your home, not behind the veil of sanctimonious self-satisfaction, and definitely not in the fluffy clouds floating beyond the engulfing fire of the raging battlefield between truth and falsehoods.

To my pleasant surprise, we managed to keep thousands of Filipinos watching the first ever cross-ideological long-form debate in Philippine history right until midnight. That’s how you save liberalism: embrace dialogue, drop snobbery, climb down from the ivory tower, and appeal to reason even amid the most hostile crowds. Freedom doesn’t come freely by itself.

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TAGS: Horizons, Liberalism, Richard Heydarian
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