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When Ethics Collide with Culture, We Must Rediscover Shame

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In March 2018, as he presided over Lenten services, Pope Francis said that humanity should feel “shame for having lost a sense of shame.” He described our world as one devoured by selfishness, focused on self-interest instead of serving the common good. Then he called for people to rediscover the capacity to feel shame for their role in the social ills of this fractured world.

What is shame and how can it be put to good use? And have we indeed lost it?

As we ponder these questions, perhaps we can look at various scenes not uncommon in our country.

A government official is charged in court for serious corruption allegations. A business leader or a town official makes indecent jokes against women while speaking at a public event. A popular, high-profile personality is sued for private videos uploaded on the internet.

What happens following these episodes merit a deeper look into our ethical standards.

The public official continues to be invited to parties by his friends and neighbors, and not a few of them ask him to stand as godfather to their children. The speaker who makes the crude, off-color remarks sees many women laughing in his audience which later gives him a resounding applause. The popular figure is constantly swarmed by admirers and autograph-seekers, even at the height of the court case.

Sadly, nowadays, we seem to be unable to distinguish when one deserves a place in the Hall of Honor or a spot in the corner of shame.

What we see today is that people who wield power or fame usually remain extolled and praised by many, even when they commit what appears to be a serious breach of ethical conduct or sometimes, of laws or regulations. When they easily find defenders who provide a ready excuse whenever they misbehave, why then should the offenders feel any shame?

People who tolerate such negative behavior professed to have values no different from those that our society recognizes. They have expressed beliefs in honesty and integrity, respect for women, justice and ethics. What happened then to consistency between their avowed ethical values and their specific actions?

Why do we see differences between beliefs and actual behavior?

This inconsistency has oftentimes been attributed to our so-called culture of personalism, the very self-interest Pope Francis has cited. We focus more on family, community, and friends—our own circles—rather than prioritizing the common good. We usually react only if we or those we care about are directly prejudiced. We do not risk views or actions that might be deemed unwarranted by others, especially the powerful.

Our culture also seems to be too forgiving to a fault, especially towards people we know. But should we not ask ourselves if this quiet acceptance or tolerance, especially when seen by our children or others, could be upsetting ethical norms? Does forgiveness mean enduring or even supporting something opposed to principled conduct and appropriate behavior? What does this say of our culture, our values, our scruples?

The tolerance of misbehavior may be primarily responsible for incidence of corruption or unethical behavior in this country. Indeed, how many public or corporate officials would engage in unprincipled practices if they risked not just prosecution in courts or termination of their position, but also the more hurtful threat of losing the respect of their communities and friends?

Many agree that the risk of rejection or being shamed or ostracized, even silently, by people around you could be an effective weapon against corruption and abusive conduct.

Would it still be rewarding to crack crude jokes if these were met with silence or cold stares rather than laughter? Could the dishonest savor fruits of corruption or illegal liaisons if most of their neighbors did not show up at the parties thrown at their palatial homes? Would their children enjoy riding a luxury car to school if their classmates looked at them with disdain?

Unfortunately, amassing wealth or power, even through illegal or unscrupulous means, normally brings an almost equal reward of awe and deference, if not envy. There is acceptance, fatalism (“we can’t do anything anyway”) and justification (“so many are doing it”).

That “many are doing it” seems to provide an acceptable cloak of justification. But, it is far from the moral truth. As a lawyer-friend declared, “That many are doing it does not right a wrong or mitigate an offense; on the contrary, it makes all offenders collectively guilty.”

People forget that tolerating the wrong, the unjust, the unethical, is slowly diminishing our values, our principles.

What to do?

We should articulate the right messages at work, in schools, in organizations, and in public fora, to extol what is good and avoid applauding what is wrong. Otherwise, we truly become part of the problem: we confer a mantle of acceptance on what the offenders do.

We need to develop our nation’s culture founded on ethical values and principles: values to uphold and defend, principles to respect, and solid foundations to build upon. And as for what we believe or know to be wrong, we need to rediscover shame and the good its proper use brings.

As Pope Francis’ message goes, let us rediscover shame in doing wrong. And shame in ignoring wrong.

Sherisa P. Nuesa is a FINEX Director and Vice President for Ethics and Governance. A former Managing Director of Ayala Corporation, she is currently a Board Director of various foundations and corporations, among them Manila Water Company, Integrated Micro-Electronics, Inc., ALFM Mutual Funds, and Far Eastern University. She is also a Board adviser of the Vicsal Group. She was the 2008 ING-FINEX CFO of the Year.

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